Former Rep. Emanuel Celler, 92, a New York Democrat who was the congressman chiefly responsible for the enactment of the first civil rights laws since Reconstruction, died of pneumonia yesterday at his home in Brooklyn.
Mr. Celler served in the House for 50 years -- from 1923 until January 1973. In length of service, his record was exceeded only by that of Rep. Carl Vinson (D-Ga.), who served for 50 years and two months. For 22 of his years on Capitol Hill, Mr. Celler was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a record that stands.
"I think I have accomplished quite a lot," Mr. Celler said in an interview shortly after he was defeated in a Democratic primary by former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman and announced his retirement.
Indeed, he steered through the House four constitutional amendments (allowing citizens of the District of Columbia to vote in presidential elections, barring the levying of poll taxes in federal elections, the amendment on presidential disability and succession, and lowering the voting age to 18), all of the major civil rights bills of this century, and perhaps 400 other major laws, including the abolition of the use of national origins for setting immigration quotas and the Celler-Kefauver Antitrust Act of 1950, an important tightening of the antitrust laws. Moreover, he kept bottled up a host of proposals that would have weakened the Bill of Rights.
Throughout his career in Congress, Mr. Celler, who was urbane and witty and a maker of proverbs, maintained a law practice in New York. He always said that this posed no conflict of interest, since he never worked on cases involving the federal government. In fact, the office had two doors -- one with Mr. Celler's name on it and another that bore only the names of his partners. Mr. Celler continued to practice law and do "a little highclass lobbying" until his death.
In Congress, he became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee through seniority. The luck of seniority gave him jurisdiction over civil rights at a time when the national conscience finally had decided that Congress must help protect the rights of blacks.
When Mr. Celler took over the chairmanship, the Southern-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee bottled up all civil rights legislation. It was Mr. Celler who started the landmark 1957, 1964 and 1965 civil rights bills on their way. He also played a role in the passage of the 1959 and 1968 acts. By his actions in the committee and the strong majorities he mustered in the House, he helped generate pressures that persuaded the Senate to pass the bills despite the opposition of such powers as Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the threat of filibuters and other tactics.
Of Mr. Celler's many legislative battles, perhaps the most impressive was the one he waged in behalf of the 1964 act. At the age of 75, he led a two-week debate that held together the farthest-reaching civil rights bill ever written: it covered desegregation in education, employment, public accommodations and other basic aspects of life.
In later years, Mr. Celler was known for positions that had more in common with his own urban roots as the grandson of German Jewish immigrants. He was adamant in his opposition to the equal rights amendment for women. Moreover, he became a gadfly in trying to bring professional sports under the purview of the antitrust laws. This interest began with his efforts to keep the Brooklyn Dogers baseball team in Brooklyn. It went to Los Angeles anyway and professional sports still are outside the antitrust laws.
Emanuel Celler was born in Brooklyn on May 6, 1888. His father was a wine merchant who fell on hard times. Young Celler worked his way through the law school of Columbia University and began the law practice that was to last for the rest of his life.
In 1922, Mr. Celler got the Democratic nomination for a seat in Congress. He campaigned on the evils of Prohibition and the virtues of the League of Nations and became the first Democrat to be elected from his district.
Although he was the legislative champion of the independent liberal left, Mr. Celler was a loyal organization man in politics. He always was prepared to strike a legislative compromise when the alternative was defeat. "It's better to bend than to break," he would say.
On at least one occasion in the 1960s, the difference was scarcely noticeable. For years, Mr. Celler tried to pass legislation that would set population for congressional districts and outlaw gerrymandering. What was meant to be such a bill finally passed both the House and the Senate. But it was so chopped up in the process that nothing remained except a provision to protect House members from being forced to run at large.
Mr. Celler was bald except for a white fringe of hair. He usually had a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Although he was stooped from osteomyelitis he contracted in 1941, he remained hale and hearty until the end. He used a lot of old-fashioned language, always had a new joke and was held in high affection by his colleagues on the Hill.
The saltiness and alertness were evident in an interview he gave in September 1978.
"I still have all my marbles," he observed. "But I still have qualms. . . . I often repeat this story: the three qualms of old age. The first is lapse of memory. And. . . . really. . . I can't remember the other two."
Mr. Celler's wife, the former Stella B. Barr, whom he married on June 30, 1914, died in 1966.
Survivors include a daughter, Jane Wertheimer of Scarsdale, N.Y., two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.