Bill Keller’s surprising unsung hero of civil rights

Bill Keller’s surprising unsung hero of civil rights

We learn when we are young never to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what gives with Bill Keller? In March of this year, the former New York Times executive editor and current columnist wrote an op-ed arguing that Barack Obama at least shared culpability for the dreaded sequester. The claim was obviously true — the president’s signature is literally on the Budget Control Act of 2011, which paved the way for sequestration — but to hear a diehard liberal like Keller admit the fact was to question one’s powers of perception.

Today, Keller did it again. He has another op-ed piece, this one titled “An Unsung Hero of Civil Rights.” So, who is Keller’s closet hero? Is it Al Sharpton? Someone even less deserving of that title (if in fact such a person exists)? Nope it’s William Moore McCulloch, a relatively obscure figure whom Keller describes accurately as “a conservative white Republican.”

Keller further writes:

[T]here is a good case to be made that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have become law without him. And there is a very good case to be made that Washington desperately needs his example today.

McCulloch was a congressman from a rural, conservative district in west central Ohio. He was frugal with the taxpayers’ money, favored allowing prayer in schools and keeping the federal government out of them, voted against foreign aid and gun control. These views were sufficiently in sync with his constituents that voters re-elected him 12 times.

With a district that was 2.7 percent black, he had no political incentive to stick his neck out on something as contentious as civil rights. But McCulloch was descended from abolitionists, and had been appalled by his exposure to Jim Crow when he worked as a young lawyer in Florida. This fortified in him a strong belief that the blessings of the Constitution were not meant exclusively for white men, and that it was the highest duty of the federal government to secure those blessings for all.

Moreover — quaint as this may seem today — he believed that principles were not things to be surrendered to polls and lobbyists and that clamorous mob called “the base.” On the wall of his district office in Piqua, Ohio, McCulloch displayed a framed excerpt from Edmund Burke’s message to the electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Make no mistake. Keller expresses cynicism about today’s Republicans, whom he accuses early in his essay of appealing to “white resentment” and attempting to “roll back the basic franchise promised in the Civil Rights Act.” But on balance, his observations are spot-on. He writes, “You would be hard pressed to find a McCulloch in today’s Congress of zero-sum partisans and base-whipped invertebrates,” and — sadly — he’s right. He’s also right when he says that “Washington desperately needs his example today.”


Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy has written for The Blaze, HotAir, NewsBusters, Weasel Zippers, Conservative Firing Line, RedCounty, and New York’s Daily News. He has one published novel, Hot Rain, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), and has been a guest on Radio Vice Online with Jim Vicevich, The Alana Burke Show, Smart Life with Dr. Gina, and The George Espenlaub Show.

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