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Diggs, Charles, Jr.

Diggs, Charles, Jr.

December 2, 1922
August 24, 1998


Born in Detroit, Congressman Charles Coles Diggs Jr. was the only child of Mayne Jones and Charles Coles Diggs. The senior Diggs was a Michigan legislator and the owner of the state's largest funeral home. Diggs Jr. studied at the University of Michigan and Fisk University. During World War II he served as a Tuskegee airman, reaching the rank of lieutenant. After his discharge in 1945, he attended Wayne State University in Detroit, where he obtained a degree in mortuary science. He then went to work in his father's funeral home.

In 1950 Diggs's father, who had been imprisoned for taking bribes, won reelection to his Michigan state senate post in a special election, but the legislature refused to seat him. Diggs Jr. ran for the seat in a special election, defending his father's record. He won both the primary and the general election by large margins. In the legislature Diggs allied himself with the policies of Gov. G. Mennen Williams, a friend of the labor movement. In 1951 and 1952 Diggs took night law courses at the Detroit School of Law.

In 1954 Diggs ran for the House of Representatives from Michigan's 13th District. He defeated incumbent George O'Brien in the Democratic primary and defeated a Republican challenger in the general election, becoming Michigan's first African-American congressman. Once in the House of Representatives, Diggs pressed for civil rights legislation and enforcement. In 1956 he introduced the measure to establish a Civil Rights Commission. Later, in 1971, he became a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. In the 1960s Diggs backed successful measures to lower the voting age to eighteen and to aid minority businesses. In 1972 he was one of the organizers of the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, an unsuccessful attempt to unify African Americans politically and to form an alternative political party. Diggs established himself on the House District of Columbia Committee, helping to win the district home rule. In 1973 he was named chair of the District Committee.

Diggs also specialized in foreign affairs, particularly in Africa. A champion of foreign aid, in 1959 he became the first African-American member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and he later served as chair of the Committee's Africa Subcommittee. Named by President Richard Nixon to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, he resigned in December 1971 to protest U.S. support of South Africa and Portuguese involvement in Africa.

In 1978 Diggs, by then the senior black representative, was convicted of mail fraud and payroll kickbacks involving his office employees. His constituents elected him to a thirteenth term, and he appealed his conviction. Under pressure, he resigned his committee chairmanships, and on July 31, 1979, the House formally censured Diggs, 4140, for his conduct. On June 3, 1980, the Supreme Court refused to hear Diggs's appeal. He resigned his seat and went to prison in Alabama, where he served seven months. Following his release he served as an aide to the Congressional Black Caucus and practiced his mortician trade in Maryland. In 1987 he ran unsuccessfully for the Wayne County Commission in Michigan, but that same year he regained the state mortuary license he had lost with his conviction.

Charles Diggs died in 1998. More than six hundred people attended a ceremony in Maryland celebrating his civil rights record.

See also Congressional Black Caucus

Bibliography

Christopher, Maurine. Black Americans in Congress. New York: Crowell, 1976.

"Diggs Released from Prison." New York Times, March 7, 1981, p. 38.

"Hundreds Pay Tribute to Late Rep. Charles Diggs' Civil Rights Record at Maryland Ceremony." Jet, September 21, 1998, p. 18.

steven j. leslie (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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