Emanuel Celler, the son of a shop owner, was born in Brooklyn on 6th May, 1888. His grandmother was a Jewish immigrant from Germany. He later wrote: "In our house we repeated the pattern of thousands of other homes. There were a few books and a lot of music. Our food and our furniture were no different from our neighbors'. While we ourselves were not poor, I had only to walk a few streets away to find the sounds and the smells of poverty. We were respectable and middle-class. But we were not very far from the Brooklyn dockyards. I didn't know then that I would never be able to leave the sounds and smells of these sights behind me, but I was fiercely conscious of one thing - of my ambition."
After attending the Brooklyn Boys' High School he worked as a wine salesman while studying at the Columbia University Law School. His father provided him with some of the money to help him study. He told him: " I am not giving the money to you. It will be a loan. This is how you will pay me back: Some day, when someone stands before you in need of help, you will help him as I will help you. In this way only will I consider the loan repaid."
In 1912 Celler was admitted to the bar and began working as a lawyer in New York City. A member of the Democratic Party, Celler was elected to the Senate 1923. As the grandson of immigrants, Celler was a strong opponent of the 1924 Immigration Act. He also campaigned in favour of equal civil rights for African Americans and argued against Prohibition. Celler later admitted: "For the first ten years of my life in Congress, I had been timid. I had been too timid to tell the truth as I saw it. In a way I had betrayed my trust. Yes, I had fought against the unjust restriction of immigration. I worked what seemed to me endlessly on the repeal of the Prohibition Amendment. I had advocated the establishment of a Negro industrial commission. I had gestured against the growth of monopoly power. I had introduced a few civil rights bills. But, actually, I had taken on the color of the climate around me and I had driven back all the emotion that rose from the Brooklyn streets, so that I could belong unobtrusively to the exclusive club of Congress."
Celler was a great supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. He argued in his autobiography: "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."
Celler was an early critic of Martin Dies and the House of Un-American Activities Committee: "The Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities is now a standing investigatory committee with power to initiate legislation.... The vaudevillian antics, the brass band tactics, the star chamber proceedings of the Dies Committee have put all of us on notice. Bluntly then, the present committee can make its choice. It can either adopt the Dies course of unfounded character assassinations, lynch-law, prosecutor-jury and executioner all in one - or it can proceed in a manner consonant with the American tradition of the right to be heard, the right of counsel and the right of confrontation of witnesses, placing emphasis on investigation of all foreignisms with honest judicious objectivity. If we are to have again an extravaganza of persecution - a deep-seated mania of embracing some I individually conceived notion of alienism, we face again a betrayal of our basic constitutionally guarded frights. The power to investigate is a great public trust. And we ask the newly constituted committee not for one instant to forget that."
Celler became associated with many progressive causes and was one of those attacked by Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s. He defended himself against these attacks at the 1952 Democratic National Convention: "Let's name the evil which has called this plank forth, an evil recognizable to every mature mind. It has a name - McCarthyism. Let us not underestimate the width and the depth of the fear blanketing this country because of McCarthyism. Let us not underestimate how many people, both within the Democratic and Republican Parties and the independents, are crying out for leadership to cut out this cancer. Deliberately and calculatedly, McCarthyism has set before itself the task of undermining the faith of the people in their Government. It has undertaken to sow suspicion everywhere, to set friend against friend, and brother against brother. It deals in coercion and in intimidation, tying the hands of citizens and officials with the fear of the smear attack. I have no wish to indulge in histrionics, but I do know that McCarthyism represents a danger in this country we dare not ignore. I say it is a cold hand creeping over our vitals. The fact that the author of McCarthyism was given the distinction of addressing the Republican National Convention strikes terror in the hearts of honest men. Many who have flirted with the idea of voting the Republican ticket have turned away from that ticket because of the acceptance by the Republican Party of McCarthy and McCarthyism."
In the Senate he was chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary. Celler's autobiography, You Never Leave Brooklyn, was published in 1953. After Celler was defeated in 1972 Celler returned to his work as a lawyer in New York City.
Emanuel Celler died in Brooklyn on 15th January, 1981.