The first African American to be elected to Congress from Michigan, Charles C. Diggs made significant contributions to the struggle for civil rights through his business and political ties. In an April 1956 telegram to Martin Luther King, Diggs commended the Montgomery Improvement Association president for his “cherished leadership in the fight for equality,” that he described as an “indestructible monument which will defy the ravages of time” (Papers 3:218).
Diggs was born on 2 December 1922, in Detroit. He attended the University of Michigan (1940 to 1942) and Fisk University (1942 to 1943) before joining the Army Air Corps in 1943. After his honorable discharge in 1945, he graduated from Wayne State University School of Mortuary Science (1945 to 1946) and began working with his family’s business, the House of Diggs funeral home.
In his first year at the Detroit College of Law (1951 to 1952), Diggs was elected to the Michigan State Senate, where he served until 1954, when he won a seat in Congress with the slogan “Make Democracy Live.” Diggs was passionate about civil rights for Africans and African Americans. In 1955, prompted by the murder of Emmett Till and the realization that Tallahatchie County in Mississippi did not have any African American registered voters, Diggs advocated slashing Mississippi’s representation in Congress in proportion to its disenfranchised African American population. Diggs then made an unsuccessful request to President Dwight Eisenhower for a special session of Congress to address civil rights.
In 1956, Diggs raised nearly $4,500 from his radio program, House of Diggs, to aid the Montgomery bus boycott. He attended King’s boycott violation trial in Montgomery and joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) advisory board in 1957. As an elected official, Diggs was interested in the low rates of African American registered voters in the South, and shared his views on the problem with King. In March 1958, King expressed his deep gratitude to Diggs for his interest and “wise and judicial counsel” on African American voter registration. Three months after that letter, Diggs followed up with King and suggested that SCLC consider South Carolina as a focal point for registration activities (Papers 4:389).
As the chairman of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the House of Representative’s Committee on Foreign Relations, Diggs strongly advocated ending apartheid in South Africa. In 1969, he became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of African American representatives and senators working to promote black interests.
In 1978, Diggs was convicted of illegally diverting office operating funds to pay his own personal expenses. Although his conviction did not prevent him from winning reelection, he resigned from his congressional seat in 1980. After serving seven months in prison, he went back to the family funeral business in Michigan, where he resided until his death in 1998.