Emanuel Celler, the “godfather of civil rights legislation.” (Courtesy of United States House of Representatives History, Art Archives)

By Wayne Dawkins
Special to the AFRO

Meet the godfather of civil rights legislation, and author of the much-discussed 25th Amendment regarding presidential succession in case the Commander-in-Chief is unable, or unfit, to serve.

Emanuel Celler [1881-1981] was the extraordinary workhorse, bulldog congressman of the late 20th century. He is the subject of a book by yours truly that was published Oct. 1.

Celler, (D-New York) longtime chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was the author of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, the first such laws passed since Reconstruction in 1875. Civil rights leaders, including Baltimore icon Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. of the NAACP, initially dismissed Celler’s legislation as toothless. However, the new laws were not inconsequential. The acts established processes to document civil and voting rights violations against African Americans living in the then Jim Crow-South.

Evidence gathered, plus the momentum of American history: four Black Alabama girls bombed to death, Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers assassinated and then President John F. Kennedy, too, resulted in President Lyndon B. Johnson pressing Celler to bring another civil rights bill, this time with bite, to his desk. 

Celler, age 76 at the time, mustered the physical energy and mental acuity to outmaneuver and outwit Southern segregationist members of Congress who tried to kill the legislation. Celler of Brooklyn, N.Y. waged a battle of wits with Rep. Howard “Judge” Smith of Alexandria, Va. Smith argued that if Blacks were allowed first-class citizenship rights, White women, who back then were treated as property, would be disenfranchised. 

Celler used cunning and guile to legislatively disarm Smith. The civil rights bill not only cleared the House, the final version was a more inclusive bill. Not only did it forbid legal discrimination against African Americans, additional titles forbid discrimination against other Americans based on sex, religious beliefs and age. 

When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law that summer, Celler stood at the president’s shoulder, appropriately as the midwife of the legislation. Martin Luther King Jr. leaned over the president’s shoulder and smiled impishly.       

A year later, Celler was at it again, successfully floor managing a voting rights bill to the president’s desk that LBJ would sign into law. Within a decade after the VRA became law, former Confederate states began electing the first Black officials since Reconstruction ended in 1877. Within a generation, Black members of Congress were elected in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Now, about that 25th Amendment. When Celler was a 30-ish adult, President Woodrow Wilson became gravely ill , then was hidden from public view by his wife Mrs. Edith Wilson. The U.S. Constitution did not proffer an orderly succession as to who would be in charge if a president died, was incapacitated, or perish the thought, was insane. 

In 1965, Celler and Senate co-writer Birch Bayh of Indiana co-wrote the 25th Amendment.

The line of succession after the president was spelled out: vice president, then house speaker, then president pro tempore of the Senate, then Secretary of State. 

When President Reagan was shot and seriously wounded in 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig infamously, and incorrectly, declared himself in charge. Vice President George H.W. Bush was in an airplane en route to D.C. On the ground, the House Speaker would have been in charge, but Haig almost jumped two places. Reagan recovered and reassumed the presidency.

Today, the 45th president’s erratic, routinely bizarre behavior moved legal scholars in 2018 to wonder whether the 25th Amendment should be applied. 

In 2020, Donald Trump, COVID-19 super spreader, is on clock again. His health is shaky. 

Should the American people be ready to make change, even with an election less than three weeks away? Celler’s guidance and foresight looms large. 

“Emanuel Celler: Immigration and Civil Rights Champion” was published Oct. 1 by University Press of Mississippi.

The author is a professor of professional practice at Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication.