"As the first Black congressman from Michigan, he helped form the Congressional Black Caucus."
"When we talk about self determination for the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), Congressman Charles Diggs said, "we are not only talking about a matter of local interest, but because of the unique role of this capital community, it is of concern to each one of the members of the 435 districts across this country." As a Black man and a congressman, Diggs was very concerned about the disenfranchisement of Blacks as it related to voting. He strongly believed that registration campaigns demanded aggressive follow-up in the field to ensure that those who were eligible to vote should not only register, but should also vote.
Prior to being elected to Congress, Diggs took an interest in civil rights. He traveled to the South, gave speeches, and attended meetings and conferences where civil rights issues were discussed and debated.
Diggs was the only child of Charles Diggs, Sr. and Mamie Ethel Jones Diggs; he was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 2, 1922. His family was prominent in the mortuary business including a funeral insurance company and an ambulance service. The heavy migration of southern Blacks into northern cities greatly accelerated the rising influence of Black businessmen in those cities and, as a businessman, Diggs Sr.'s wealth and influence increased immeasurably. He became the first Black to be elected to the Michigan State Senate. Of course, his entry into politics set the tone for his son's future political ambition and Diggs became his father's willing student.
After graduating from Miller High School in Detroit, Diggs enrolled at the University of Michigan and then transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. However, in 1943, he suspended his studies and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he served in a segregated unit during World War II, earning the rank of second lieutenant. After an honorable discharge, Diggs resumed his studies at Wayne State University where he graduated in Mortuary Science in 1946. He then followed his father's footsteps into the family's mortuary business as a funeral director.
In addition to working in the family business, Diggs had a local radio music show, kept abreast of civil rights issues and enrolled in the Detroit College of Law in 1951. Having all the necessary ingredients, it was natural that he would enter politics. His entry into politics was triggered by an unfortunate circumstance that befell his father. Diggs Sr. was caught up in a legislative scandal, which brought his public career to an abrupt halt. When he tried to regain his seat in the State Senate – despite the fact that he won re-election – Diggs Sr. was denied his seat by the Republican-controlled body.
This enraged Diggs who interrupted his studies and ran for the seat his father was denied. In a special election that ensued, he won – once again following his father's footsteps. (He never returned to finish law school though years later, he earned a degree in Political Science from Howard University and, unlike his father, he excelled as an orator and a debater). After three years in the state senate, Diggs set his sights on the United States Congress. Changing demographics in the state's 13th district, which included Detroit's Central City, a hub of inner city Blacks, made that congressional seat attractive to Diggs. In 1954, just after the Brown decision, and using the slogan, "Make Democracy Live," he bested the incumbent by a two-to-one margin in the primary. Then building on that momentum, he rode the Brown tidal wave to an overwhelming victory over his opponent. Of his victory, Diggs said, "This is a great victory for the voters of the Democratic Party, and it also settles deeper issues – the racial issue. This is proof that the voters of the 13th district have reached maturity." He served in Congress from 1955 to 1980 never having to face any serious opposition, often being re-elected by 70 percent-plus margins.
While in Congress, Diggs continued working on non-legislative civil rights issues; he was passionate about civil rights for African-Americans and human rights for Africans. Prompted by the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the disproportionate representation of Blacks in Congress from Mississippi, he made an unsuccessful request to President Dwight Eisenhower for a special session of Congress to address civil rights issues in general. In 1956, he raised about $4,500 during his radio program, "House of Diggs" to assist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. He was very supportive of Dr. King's activities and joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) advisory board the following year, speaking forcefully in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
As he gained seniority in Congress, Diggs began to focus on the inequities of the representation of Blacks in Congress. He chose assignments that allowed him to influence the lives of African-Americans in particularly and Africans in general. During the 84th Congress, he partnered with Congressmen Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) and William L. Dawson (D-Ill.) who shared similar concerns about their constituents. During a speech in Mississippi, Diggs proclaimed, "integration is as inevitable as the rising sun – even in Mississippi."
As a member of SCLC's advisory board, Diggs sent Dr. King a telegram expressing his disappointment about the low rate of African-American voter registration in the South. Dr. King's response to him stated in part, "…. I was glad to get your telegram I will contact Congressman Dawson in the not too distant future. I am always proud to hear of the great work you are doing. Please know that you always have my moral support. You are doing a great work, not only for the Negro, but for the whole of American Democracy."
Diggs' most memorable moments in the Congress were his roles in the organizing of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), his efforts to gain home rule status for the District of Columbia and his outreach towards African countries.
Concerned about ways of forging alliances with other Black officials, Diggs was organized the Democratic Select Committee (DSC) in 1969 to promote the exchange of ideas among Black members and to strengthen the relationship between their constituents. Newly-elected members including Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), William Clay (D-Mo.) and Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) embraced the idea of networking among African Americans but they also wanted a more formal structure. Out of their brainstorming, the DSC evolved into the CBC whose focus has been working together to promote Black interest. From that point on – with the rare exceptions of Black Republicans – Black members of Congress have always become a part of the CBC, which has been called "the conscience of the Congress." (As the senator from Illinois, President Barack Obama was a member of CBC).
As chairman of the House District Committee from 1973 to 1978, Diggs was in charge of the legislative affairs of Washington, D.C. During that time, he laid the groundwork for the implementation of the district's home-rule charter that allowed its residents to elect their own government. Prior to that, the district was governed mostly by the House of Representatives.
He was also chairman of the sub-committee of the House Committee on foreign relations and used that position to bolster relations with many African countries – one of the focuses of his foreign policy leanings. (Way back in the 50's, during the Eisenhower administration, Diggs had been a part of delegation that went to Ghana's independence celebrations). TransAfrica, an organization devoted to African and Caribbean affairs was also founded in Diggs' office.
During his tenure, he used every means at his disposal to confront brutal regimes in Africa, some of which were being propped up by the United States including Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique and apartheid in South Africa.
His fortunes declined when he became embroiled in a federal investigation. In 1978, a jury convicted him on multiple charges and he was sent to prison. He claimed to be a victim of "selective prosecution" and was still re-elected after his conviction. Diggs was censured by the Congress, in addition, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case. He resigned from Congress in 1980 and served almost half of a three-year sentence.
Much of Diggs' accomplishments have been overshadowed by the mishaps that ended his political career, which in turn has distorted the importance of his legacy. There was even a controversy for him to join the official delegation that attended the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994 – an event that he had helped to usher in.
Diggs was married four times and had six children. He died on August 24, 1998 in Washington, D.C.