Monday, January 12, 2015

Selma and my Congressman

The movie “Selma” covers a number of individuals who were involved in the civil rights movement, but not every thread could be woven into the story. I’m glad they included Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb (killed by white thugs after traveling from Boston to support the march) and Viola Luiza (a white woman from Detroit who was shot by the KKK shortly after the march).

One of the many story threads that didn’t make the movie was the only member of Congress who marched in Selma with Dr. King. This Congressman had been invited on a junket to watch a Gemini spaceflight launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but decided instead that he should go participate in the march.

This resolute Congressman was not from a state known for its progressivism. It is doubtful that any of his constituents were at the march. However, his conscience led him to take a stand against the discrimination that prevented American citizens from being able to exercise their right to vote. He knew he had to be there that day—not for any publicity, but because it was the right thing to do.

His name was Ken Hechler from West Virginia.

Ken Hechler was the first congressman I knew about as I grew up. His district originally ran up the Ohio Valley from Huntington to Parkersburg. I can remember my grandmother went on a trip to Washington and came back with some very neat publications for me about the Constitution, the American Flag, etc., all stamped as coming from his office.

I was still very young during the ‘60s, but Ken Hechler helped form my expectations for Congressional service. One of the practices he had was when Congress was on break, he would come back to the district and work various jobs to get a better sense about the lives of his constituents. One week he might be working at a bakery, and the next he might be mowing lawns. He was a bit like today’s TV star Mike “Dirty Jobs” Rowe. I may not have understood complex policy decisions at that point in my young life, but I could appreciate a Congressman who “worked” during his vacation.

Ken Hechler set a high bar for me, because I grew up thinking that was what all members of Congress did. Nowadays Congressmen seem to spend all their free time raising money from the “fat cats.” Few (if any) of them would agree to get their hands dirty or break a sweat while working among “commoners” during their vacation. Indeed, it was his desire to see “what things were really like” that inspired me to visit all of the county schools, the bus garages, and other locations during my tenure as an elected member of the Wood County School Board (some of you know the story about how my desire to see the schools and the controversy that ensued).

Although not a native West Virginian, Ken Hechler had landed at Marshall University as a professor in the 1950s. He had served in WWII (and later wrote the book that became the Hollywood movie “The Bridge at Remagen”) and then worked for President Truman in the White House. A popular professor once he arrived at Marshall, his students urged him to run for Congress in 1958 and he won.

The Democratic Party power brokers in West Virginia were never very high on this “egghead” professor who was originally from New York. When the decline in population after the 1970 census meant that West Virginia had to cut down from five to four congressional districts, Hechler’s district was the one that got chopped up. Parkersburg got moved in with the northern panhandle’s district, but Huntington was added to the southernmost district. This meant that this Marshall professor would have to run against the established incumbent (James Kee) from Bluefield. Despite the party bosses’ efforts to gerrymander him out of his position, Hechler was able to pull off an upset. He continued in Congress until 1976, when he decided to run for governor and lost to Jay Rockefeller in the primary. In 1984, Hechler was elected Secretary of State, and served in that position for 16 years.

Another interesting tidbit about Hechler was that he didn’t ride around in big cars like many politicians. Instead, he drove a small red 4-wheel drive Jeep (similar in design to what he drove in WWII) which enabled to get just about anywhere in rural West Virginia.

In 1999, a 90 year old woman from New Hampshire set out to walk across the country to call attention to the need for campaign finance reform (which ultimately was passed as the McCain-Feingold Act). Doris Haddock (known as Granny D) had made it across Ohio by December 1999. As she approached Belpre, she was joined by Ohio’s Secretary of State (Ken Blackwell, a Republican). West Virginia’s Secretary of State Ken Hechler met them in Belpre and, along with nearly a hundred others, they all crossed the bridge and into West Virginia. Granny D was a wonderful woman and I had the honor of walking with her from Belpre that day. I also walked with her the next day from the Wood County Courthouse as far as the Route 50/Interstate 77 interchange as she headed east to Washington, DC.

Ken Hechler was good friends with Dr. Evelyn Harris, my mentor at the University of Charleston whom I wrote about yesterday. They were both academicians who had migrated from New York to West Virginia. During my time as a political science student at UC, Ken Hechler came to campus a couple of times, and was always a fascinating speaker.

When I started teaching American Government and Constitutional Law as an adjunct faculty member at WVU-Parkersburg, I liked bringing in a guest speaker for my students. On two different occasions, I was honored to be able to bring Ken Hechler to speak with my students, just as he had done when I was a sitting at a desk as a student. He had so many experiences to tell my students, and they enjoyed hearing them.

I can’t say that I knew Ken Hechler all that well, or that I necessarily agreed with him on all his political positions, but I definitely admired him. He turned 100 years old last September, and is currently the oldest living former member of Congress. I was fortunate enough to get my picture taken with him several years ago (shown below) when he came to speak where I work at the U.S. Bureau of the Public Debt in Parkersburg for a Martin Luther King Day presentation.

I’m glad that he was my first view of what a Congressman is supposed to be. I’m very proud that he was the only congressman to have marched in Selma—even if it didn’t make it into the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly encourage you to watch “Selma” and witness this important chapter of American history.

I only wish there were more inspiring politicians for youngsters to emulate today!

1 comment:

  1. Dave, you always have so much interesting information. I was not aware that Ken Heckler marched at Selma. Nor was I aware that he worked "normal" jobs during the interim periods of Congress. I WAS aware that he was often seen at parades in my hometown and at the county seat. While I did not always share his political views, I DID respect him for getting out among the people even as he aged! He always seemed available and willing to listen. A lesson politicians of today should take to heart!