Diggs, Charles C. Jr. 1922–1998
Charles C. Diggs, Jr. 1922–1998
Charles C. Diggs was a bright light among black politicians during the civil rights era, one of the first African Americans to rise to high levels of elective office and one who compiled a substantial record of legislative accomplishment. Elected to the U.S. Congress in 1954, he was Michigan’s first, and for many years its only, black representative. Because Diggs’s political career ended in disgrace, the importance of his legacy has generally been underestimated. Yet among the institutions that owe their existence to Diggs’s efforts are the Congressional Black Caucus and the home-rule government of the District of Columbia. Even after his resignation from Congress, Diggs remained a well-loved figure in his home town of Detroit. After his death in 1998, his funeral was attended by many of the pillars of the city’s black political establishment, many of whom had taken inspiration early in their careers from Diggs’s example.
Charles Cole Diggs Jr. was born in Detroit on December 2, 1922. His father, an undertaker and funeral home owner, was a widely-respected figure among black Detroiters. The elder Diggs was also interested in politics, working hard to register blacks to vote during the Depression years, and eventually winning a seat in Michigan’s state legislature in the 1940s. His son, with a quiet and thoughtful personality that stood in contrast to his father’s larger-than-life image, was a studious member of his high school and college classes at Detroit’s Miller High School, the University of Michigan, Fisk University in Nashville, and Wayne State University in Detroit, where he earned a B.S. in Mortuary Science in 1946 after serving in the Air Force during World War II. He excelled as an orator and debater.
Upon receiving his degree, Diggs joined his father in the family mortuary business. Writing about the mourners at Diggs’s funeral in 1998, Detroit News columnist Betty DeRamus wrote, “They could remember, as I did, when the House of Diggs was the largest funeral establishment in the United States, with an insurance company, floral business and radio station.” He followed his father into politics, winning his father’s seat in the Michigan state senate in a 1951 special election and then running for
At a Glance…
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on December 2, 1922; son of a funeral homeowner. Died of a heart attack, Washington, D.C., August 24, 1998. Education : Wayne State University, Detroit, B.S., 1946; also attended University of Michigan and Fisk University; earned political science degree, Howard University, Washington, D.C, late 1980s. Military service: Served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II.
Career: United States Representative. Elected to Michigan state senate, 1951; elected to U.S. Congress from Michigan Thirteenth District, 1954; served in Congress, 1954–80; organized Congressional Black Caucus, 1969; chair, House District Committee, and helped create home rule for District of Columbia, 1973–78; chair, African Affairs Subcommittee, House Committee on Foreign Relations, 1970s; convicted of payroll kickback charges, 1978; resigned from Congress, 1980; practicing mortician, Maryland, 1980s–1990s.
Congress in 1954 after his father had noticed the rising black majority in Michigan’s Thirteenth District. The district was comprised of much of Detroit’s central city. Challenging a white Democratic incumbent in the primary election, Diggs won handily, and rarely faced serious opposition from then on.
Early in his career, Diggs emerged as a strong voice for the civil rights movement, then just beginning to make the long legislative ascent triggered by the Supreme Court’s Brown u. Board of Education school desegregation decision of 1954. He attended the Emmett Till murder trial in Mississippi as an observer, worked in the 1950s to awaken the civil rights conscience of the national Democratic Party, called for the desegregation of public transportation, and traveled to the flashpoint of Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s. Diggs used his growing political influence to ensure the creation of a second black-majority district in Michigan in the Congressional redistricting that followed the 1960 national census.
In 1969 Diggs was a key player in organizing the Congressional Black Caucus, a bloc of black representatives and senators who work together to promote black interests. In recent years the organization has included nearly all of the African Americans serving in Congress at any given time. Diggs won the chairmanship of the House District Committee, charged with overseeing the affairs of Washington, D.C, in 1973, remaining in the post until 1978. During these years Diggs set in motion the process that led to the District’s being granted a Home Rule Charter—a plan that allowed District residents to elect their own government. Prior to Diggs’s efforts, Washington, D.C. was largely governed directly by the U.S. House.
In the 1970s Diggs also chaired the African Affairs Subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Relations. Even in the 1950s he had been interested in African affairs, and had been part of the Eisenhower administration’s delegation to Ghana’s independence ceremonies in 1957. Diggs pressed for the elimination of apartheid segregation in South Africa and advocated U.S. aid to newly independent African nations. TransAfrica, a “think tank” devoted to African affairs, was founded in Diggs’s office; the organization continued to wield considerable influence over U.S.–African policies into the 1990s. Diggs was reportedly well loved by the public in many African nations.
Early in 1978, Diggs faced charges that he had illegally diverted $60,000 in office operating funds to pay his own personal expenses. Despite these charges, he won renomination easily in that year’s primary. He was convicted of the charges in October of 1978. But in the Thirteenth District, one of the most lopsidedly Democratic in the entire country, Diggs still cruised to reelection in November. He appealed his conviction, and charged that he was the victim of selective prosecution, arguing that he was being treated more harshly than white colleagues who had committed similar infractions. Indeed, in the words of the Almanac of American Politics, “the financial difficulties which led to the acts for which he was convicted suggest not greed or venality but passivity.” But after he was censured by the House and stripped of his committee memberships, Diggs resigned his seat in 1980 after 25 years in Congress.
Sentenced to three years in prison, Diggs was released after seven months. He returned to Washington and to the life he knew before politics, opening a funeral home in suburban Maryland. But he maintained an active interest in the political scene, inveighing against the diminution of the District of Columbia’s home rule powers that followed in the wake of the city’s financial crises of the 1980s, and at one point launching a brief comeback attempt with a run for a Maryland state legislative seat. Diggs also earned a political science degree from Washington’s Howard University.
Diggs died of a massive stroke in Washington on August 24, 1998. Although some national media outlets recalled his conviction and resignation from Congress, Diggs was warmly eulogized by black colleagues at services in Washington and Detroit. Jet reported that former Ohio Representative Louis Stokes likened Diggs’s passing to the falling of “a giant oak” in the forest, and said, “Long before many of us came to Congress, Charlie Diggs was a legend to us.” Back in Diggs’s home town, Detroit News columnist DeRamus joined a host of local black politicians at Diggs’s burial service. “It no longer seemed to matter,” DeRamus wrote, “that Diggs was convicted in 1978 for his involvement in a payroll kickback scheme…. What mattered was a church service attended by people who had leaped over, crawled under, walked around and kicked down barriers.”
Barone, Michael, Grant Ujifusa, and Douglas Matthews, The Almanac of American Politics, 1980 ed., Dutton, 1979.
Detroit News, September 8, 1998, p. E1.
Jet, September 14, 1998, p. 51; September 21, 1998, p. 18.
New York Times, August 26, 1998, p. D18.
Washington Post, August 26, 1998, p. B6.
Washington Times, September 1, 1998, p. C2.
—James M. Manheim
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