The Remarkable Mr. Celler

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On May 24, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Immigration Act of 1924, which put in place a national origins quota system for immigration based on the 1890 census, which was before the wave of Eastern European immigration. Although the measure was popular at the time, support wasn’t unanimous. One of the law’s strongest opponents was freshman Congressman Emanuel Celler (1888-1981) of Brooklyn, who made it his goal to repeal the act. Although a fairly standard urban liberal during the 1920s, Celler was more accommodationist in his ideology than he would be after the onset of the Great Depression, which made him a staunch liberal. He attributed his record in his first ten years of Congress to a desire to fit in. Celler became a firm supporter of most New Deal laws and recounted the excitement of the early days of the New Deal in his autobiography, You Never Leave Brooklyn (1953), “The first days of the Roosevelt Administration charged the air with the snap and the zigzag of electricity. I felt it. We all felt it. It seemed as it you could hold out your hand and close it over the piece of excitement you had ripped away. It was the return of hope. The mind was elastic and capable of crowding idea into idea. New faces came to Washington – young faces of bright lads who could talk. It was contagious. We started to talk in the cloak rooms; we started to talk in committees. The shining new faces called on us and talked. In March of 1933 we had witnessed a revolution – a revolution in manner, in mores, in the definition of government. What before had been black or white sprang alive with color. The messages to Congress, the legislation; even the reports on the legislation took on the briskness of authority” (Spartacus).

While Celler was a strong supporter of the New Deal, he was even stronger in his support of intervention in Europe, supporting FDR’s foreign policy. However, he thought the Roosevelt Administration overly restrictive on immigration and condemned the policy restricting the taking in of Jewish refugees. Because Celler was Jewish and was willing to publicly stand up for them, he became a target for Jew-baiting by the House’s foremost anti-Semite, John Rankin (D-Miss.). An example of this was when Rankin referred to him as “the Jewish gentleman from New York”, and after Celler protested Rankin responded, “Does the member from New York object to being called a Jew or does he object to being called a gentleman? What is he kicking about?” (Spartacus) Celler would write in his autobiography that dealing with Rankin was an agony for him. Celler supported measures to ease restrictions on immigration, which became more successful starting with World War II. In 1946, he sponsored a bill with Clare Boothe Luce (R-Conn.), which eased restrictions on Filipino and Indian immigration. In 1949, Celler became chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where he would wield his greatest influence. In 1950, he sponsored the Celler-Kefauver Act, which updated and strengthened the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914. In 1952, he voted against the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, which although it eliminated race-based restrictions on immigration, it strengthened the national origins quota system to which he stood unalterably opposed. Celler also staunchly opposed the rise of influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his brand of anti-communism, condemning it in a speech before the 1952 Democratic National Convention.

Celler and Civil Rights

Celler proved a crucial advocate for civil rights in a time when many committee chairs were Southern Democrats who supported Jim Crow laws. In 1956, he, with ranking Republican William McCulloch of Ohio, began collaborating to shepherd civil rights bills through the House and Celler was a key sponsor of these measures. In 1964, the two were the most important representatives in the passage of the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1965, he introduced the 25th Amendment, providing for a constitutional procedure for presidential succession. That year he was the House sponsor of the Hart-Celler Act, which ended the national origins quota system. Like he had been for the New Deal, Fair Deal, and New Frontier, Celler was a strong supporter of the Great Society. However, despite his strong social and fiscal liberalism he ultimately ran afoul of the changing times he had helped bring about.

Emanuel Celler had long been an opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment and his reasoning was the same as Eleanor Roosevelt’s: adoption of the amendment would undo hard-fought sex-specific labor protections for women. Additionally, Celler opposed drafting women into the army. His Judiciary Committee counterpart, McCulloch, again joined him in this pursuit. He had managed to keep the measure bottled up in committee since 1949, but in 1970, Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-Mich.) managed to successfully petition the House to discharge the amendment from the Judiciary Committee, a humiliating blow to him. In 1971, the amendment succeeded in passing the House 354-24, and the following year in the Senate 84-8. It also did not help Celler with women’s rights activists that he had resisted adding women to coverage under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as he thought that would be best as a separate bill. In 1972, the 84-year old Celler was defeated for renomination by Elizabeth Holtzman, a 31-year old women’s rights activist who had centered her campaign on his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. It is a tremendous irony that the House’s leading advocates for civil rights would also turn out to be the House’s leading opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment and that said opposition ended Celler’s career. Emanuel Celler’s career, spanning from 1923 to 1973, was remarkable both in its length and breadth of accomplishment.


Emanuel Celler. Spartacus Educational.

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John Rankin. Spartacus Educational.

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