1954 : Michigan’s First African-American Elected to Congress, Early Civil Rights Champion

November 2, 2020 all-day

Charles Diggs, Michigan's first African-American congressman

On November 2, 1954 Charles Diggs Jr.,  a Detroit mortician and former state senator, was elected to the U.S. Congress, becoming Michigan’s first African-American congressman.

The same year that he was sworn into congress, Diggs received national attention as the only congressman to attend and monitor the trial of the accused killers of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who was murdered during a trip to the state. The outrage generated by the case gave a tremendous momentum to the emerging civil rights movement. Although he was a member of Congress, the sheriff did not exempt him from Jim Crow treatment. Diggs had to sit at a small table along with black reporters. Following the trial, he continued the fight for justice, calling upon President Eisenhower to call a special session of congress to consider civil rights.

In 1969, Diggs was appointed to the post of Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, where he strongly advocated ending Apartheid in South Africa. He was a committed publicist for the liberation cause in South Africa, and his ‘Action Manifesto’ (1972) displayed his support for the armed struggle against Apartheid. In it, Diggs criticized the United States government for decrying the use of such violence when it failed to condemn measures used by the South African government to subjugate the majority of its own people.[ Diggs also argued that American corporations were propping up the apartheid government through their investments, and he was banned from South Africa for these positions.

Diggs was additionally a founding member and the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of African American representatives and senators working to address the needs and rights of black constituents. While chairman, Diggs successfully led a caucus boycott of President Nixon’s State of the Union Address, following Nixon’s refusal to meet to discuss issues relevant to African Americans. This and similar work contributed to Diggs being named on the Master list of Nixon political opponents.

Founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Charles Diggs is seated front and center, to Shirley Chisholm’s right.

In 1978 he was convicted of 11 counts of mail fraud and filing false payroll forms, but was re-elected while awaiting sentencing. He resigned from Congress in 1980 and served 7 months of a three-year prison sentence.

Source : Historical Society of Michigan

For more information, see Black Americans in Congress.

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