Charles Diggs Jr black and white photo
Charles Diggs Jr. was Michigan’s first Black member of Congress. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University photo)

For the first time since 1955, Detroit will not have at least one African American representing the city in the U.S. House of Representatives. In January, state Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Detroit, will join U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, in representing portions of the Motor City, which is 79% Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. 

Thanedar, who was born in India and moved to the U.S. in 1979, defeated several Black Democratic candidates in the August primary, and Martell Bivings, an African American Republican in the November general election. Tlaib is Palestinian American.  

For some, it will be important to remember Charles Coles Diggs, Jr., a pioneering Democratic U.S. House member who was born a century ago today in 1922. The late Detroit native holds the distinction of being the first African American in Michigan history to serve in the U.S. Congress.

His parents, Charles Sr. and Mayme, owned and operated a leading funeral home anchored in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood on the city’s lower east side. Diggs’ road to Capitol Hill began after attending the University of Michigan and Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tenn.

In 1951, Diggs was elected to the Michigan Senate following in the footsteps of his father, who served between 1937 and 1944. First elected to Congress in 1954, at age 31, Diggs joined Chicago’s William Dawson and Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as the only African Americans members in the lower chamber. He was a progressive force on Capitol Hill, backing civil rights legislation for Americans but also having a passion for assisting young democracies in Africa and elsewhere.

Diggs provided activism and comfort to a grieving mother and attended the murder trial of white men accused of killing a 13-year-old Emmett Till, an African American Chicago resident. Till was brutally slain in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1955.

“Congressman Diggs…and others like them created the history upon which we now stand, as strong advocates of civil rights, civil liberties and economic empowerment,” then-Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer said at the time of Diggs’ death in 1998, according to Detroit Free Press reporting.

Diggs helped to found and serve as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969. The advocacy unit of federal lawmakers was dedicated to supporting policy and spending efforts geared toward African Americans. His tenure, however, was not without some controversy. 

On June 3, 1980, Diggs was charged with ethical violations: mail fraud and falsifying payroll forms in the late 1970s. He was convicted of inflating the salaries of five staff members and using the additional money to help pay his own office and personal debts, according to Washington Post reporting.

He resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives that year.

“I have acknowledged my guilt and wrongdoing . . . and I’m here to further acknowledge my misconduct,” said Diggs, as reported by the Washington Post in 1980.  

After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal that centered on conviction on 29 criminal counts, Diggs served about nine months in a federal prison. George Crockett Jr., a Democratic labor attorney and former Detroit Recorder’s Court member, won a special election in 1980 to replace him.

Diggs lived in Maryland toward the end of his life and unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Wayne County Commission in 1987. He died on Aug. 24, 1998.

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