Emanuel Celler: ‘Extra’ now a marquee star

Published 9:34 pm Wednesday, December 23, 2020

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By Wayne Dawkins

Let me tell you about one of the greatest congressional legislators of the late 1900s that you probably never heard of. He is Emanuel Celler (1888-1981), a congressman who represented a Brooklyn district for 50 years.

Celler has two distinct connections to Virginia. I will explain them soon.

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Now, what is so special about Celler? For starters, he waged a 40-year battle, often enduring humiliating setbacks, then emerged triumphant when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration Reform law, ending 40 years of National Origins policy that discriminated against certain white immigrants and in the extreme, people from Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Furthermore, Celler co-wrote three Constitutional Amendments, including the 25th that established a line of succession just in case a U.S. president was unable to serve because of death, debilitating health, or was unfit to serve. That amendment’s relevance has come up during the reign of 45th President Donald J. Trump.

The Celler-Birch Bayh 25th Amendment (ratified by U.S. states in 1967) was tested in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded by Virginian John Hinckley Jr. Vice President George H.W. Bush was unable to fill in immediately because he was in the air on a jet to Washington. Secretary of State Alexander Haig erroneously declared “he was in control,” until authorities explained that the House Speaker, then Senate president pro tempore were next in line to lead.

Reagan recovered from his wounds and resumed his presidency.

Celler’s signature body of work is civil rights. In 1957, he co-wrote the Civil Rights Act that established a process to investigate unconstitutional abuses of black citizens in the Jim Crow south. A follow-up 1960 CRA by Celler added more investigatory power.

However, Celler’s sponsorship of the 1964 law signed by LBJ was the game changer. But before those presidential pen strokes, Celler tangled with Virginia Congressman Howard “Judge” Smith, who tried to kill the bill in his powerful Rules Committee. Celler used a rare parliamentary move to rescue the bill from strangulation. Smith countered with a gender trick: If we give African-Americans first-class citizenship rights, he argued, white women would be disenfranchised.

Celler answered with humor and cunning, offering himself as a hen-pecked husband who always deferred to his wife. Actually, Celler outmaneuvered Smith and the final Civil Rights Act added titles that prevented legal discrimination against all Americans based on sex, religion or race.

The other Virginia connection involved Celler’s Judiciary Committee colleague Richard Poff of greater Richmond. Last October, editorials in the Roanoke Times and Richmond Times Dispatch acknowledged that committee chairman Celler was the sponsor of the bill, however argued Poff did the heavy lifting. The editorials boosted their hometown hero, but offered little evidence. Meanwhile, 25th Amendment co-sponsor, U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Indiana, told me in 2018 that Celler the Democrat in less than 30 minutes persuaded wary Republicans to reach a bipartisan consensus and craft a final report that President LBJ would sign into law.

Celler, the workhorse legislator that the New York Times in 1967 called “The Congressional Bulldog,” often lives in the end notes of recent books, including a 900-page biography of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and “The Last Million,” another new book about the race to rescue Jewish refugees from post-World War II Germany. David Nasaw’s book references Celler 12 times.

This time however, Celler is not a supporting cast member; he is the star of the first full-length biography, written by yours truly.

Wayne Dawkins lives in Suffolk and is author of “Emanuel Celler: Immigration and Civil Rights Champion,” published last October by University Press of Mississippi. Hampton Roads-area Barnes and Noble stores are now carrying the biography. Contact him at wayne.dawkins@morgan.edu.