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Advocate of civil rights in Congress

August 26, 1998

BY NIRAJ WARIKOO
Free Press Staff Writer

In the mid-1970s, Charles C. Diggs Jr. was at the peak of his political power.

The Democratic U.S. House representative from Detroit was the dean of Michigan's Congressional delegation, the senior black member of Congress, and a leader in African foreign policy. Deliberate and dignified, the rotund legislator was known as a quiet power broker and the heir to one of Michigan's largest funeral homes.

Diggs, of Hillcrest, Md., died Monday night of complications from a stroke at Southeast Community Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was 75 and had been operating the House of Diggs funeral home in Maryland.

Diggs and others helped create "the history upon which we now stand, as strong advocates of civil rights, civil liberties and economic empowerment," Mayor Dennis Archer said Tuesday.

But while he was steadily acquiring power in the nation's capitol, he had piled up bills at home.

So to stave off his growing debt, Diggs concocted a scheme to raise his congressional employees' income and had them kick back $66,000.

The founder of the Congressional Black Caucus left Congress in 1980 and served seven months in a federal prison camp for fraud.

Diggs' downfall was, in some ways, an eerie repeat of the political misfortunes of his father, Charles Diggs Sr., who was found guilty of taking a bribe while a state senator and committed suicide in 1967.

Still, Diggs Jr. is considered by many to be a pioneer in the formation of Detroit's political leadership.

"Congressman Diggs was truly ahead of his time," said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich. "He put Africa on the nation's legislative agenda at a time when the continent was all but ignored by most American politicians."

He grew up an only child in Detroit's Black Bottom. His father, angry over blatant discrimination by white funeral directors, opened up his own funeral home across from where the father of former Mayor Coleman Young ran his dry cleaning shop.

"My dad used to press his old man's single suit, and then we'd wait around until after the funeral to collect," Young once joked in an interview.

Diggs was a bookish young man and a stellar debater at Miller High School and Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Before finishing his degree, he was drafted into the Army during World War II and became drinking buddies with Young.

Meanwhile, his father expanded his business into the largest funeral home in Michigan, the House of Diggs. In one year, it handled 1,800 funerals.

Diggs Sr. served in the state Legislature as a Democrat beginning in 1938. In 1948, he started his prison sentence for corruption.

Diggs Jr. won his father's seat in a special election in 1951, becoming the youngest member of the state Senate. Three years later, Diggs Jr. won election as one of three black members of Congress.

Diggs Jr. became known for a Detroit radio show in which he weighed in on the issues of the day and for his commitment to civil rights. He traveled south to help with the Montgomery bus boycotts, attended the trials of civil-rights workers who were murdered, and was a harsh critic of the white-run government of South Africa.

But his political success was undermined by his mounting debts from two divorces, gambling and business mismanagement. Some friends said it was also his soft, kind personality that got him in trouble.

"He never got anything on his own. That is the flaw," said Damon Keith, a family friend and now judge on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 1979 interview. "He doesn't have that peripheral vision that comes from experience where you can see people getting to make a run at you. Charlie trusts everyone."

Diggs later made unsuccessful attempts to win a seat on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners in 1987 and Maryland's House of Delegates in 1990.

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

Survivors are his wife, Darlene; daughters Alexis Robinson, Denise Diggs-Taylor, Cindy Carter Diggs and Carla; sons Charles III and Douglass; 13 grandchildren; and ex-wives Juanita, Anna Diggs-Taylor and Janet Elaine Hall-Diggs.

Services will be held Tuesday in Washington and at 11 a.m. Sept. 3 at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit. Burial will be in Detroit Memorial Park in Warren.

Niraj Warikoo can be reached at 1-313-222-8851.

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