Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1922: Charles Diggs Jr., Michigan’s first Black U.S. House member, is born

By: - December 2, 2021 9:07 am

Charles Diggs Jr. pictured on the left in 1967 during civil unrest in Detroit | Tony Spina photo, Wayne State University, Walter P. Reuther Library

On Dec. 2, 1922, civil rights champion Charles Diggs, Jr. was born in Detroit. 

Diggs holds the distinction of being the first African American in Michigan history to be elected to the U.S. Congress. At age 31, he joined fellow Black Democrats William Dawson of Chicago and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York City as the only African Americans in Congress. 

His parents, father Charles Sr. and mother Mayme, were middle-class Blacks who lived on the city’s lower east side and opened a leading funeral home business after they moved to the Motor City from rural Mississippi in 1913.

Diggs Jr. attended both the University of Michigan and Fisk University and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He also was a member of the Michigan Senate, representing the 3rd District between 1951 and 1954, just as his father had between 1937 and 1944. Their constituencies were largely Black and poor.

Diggs was a progressive force on Capitol Hill, backing civil rights legislation for Americans. He also had a passion for supporting young democracies in Africa and elsewhere. At home, he provided support and comfort to a grieving mother, Mamie Till, and attended the murder trial of white men who are accused of killing her 13-year-old African-American son, Emmett Till. The teenager was brutally slain in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1955. Diggs attended the trial in the Jim Crow town.

“America should hope it never again sees the kind of a trial conducted in that ignoble state last fall,” said Diggs the following year.

In 1963, Diggs participated in a civil rights march in Detroit where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. first delivered his important “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1969, Diggs helped to found and serve as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, an advocacy group of federal lawmakers dedicated to supporting policy and spending efforts geared toward African Americans. By 1970, Diggs was a Capitol Hill veteran. In February of that year, he threatened to throw Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox out of the U.S. House cafeteria on Capitol Hill when the Dixiecrats began passing out pickaxe handles, a symbol of Southern segregation.

“I told Maddox I thought it was improper of him to be handing out the pick handles,” said Diggs at the time. “I told him it offended me, because the handles were a symbol of racism, and that they were an insult to me and other members of the House. He tried to defend his actions. He said he didn’t see why anyone was offended. Anyone who was offended, he was an ass. Then he called me a baboon.”

Maddox later was reported as supporting Diggs’ recollection.

“I told him he was acting more like an ass and a baboon than a member of Congress,” said Maddox, according to Detroit Free Press reporting.

A decade later in the 1980s, Diggs was charged with ethical violations of mail fraud and falsifying payroll forms. He resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives but maintained his innocence. He served about nine months in a federal prison.

“I considered myself a political prisoner during my incarceration,” said Diggs in 1981. “I was a victim of political and racist forces. I will go to my grave continuing to profess my innocence.”

Charles Diggs Jr. died on Aug. 24, 1998.

Dennis Archer, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice who was Detroit mayor at the time of Diggs’ death, said that the former Capitol Hill lawmaker helped to create “the history upon which we now stand, as strong advocates of civil rights, civil liberties and economic empowerment.”  

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.