by Eric Freedman & Stephen Jones
October 16, 2007
The first African Americans in Congress — Sen. Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Rep. Joseph Rainey of South Carolina — arrived in Washington in 1870 during Reconstruction, a time when the city remained very much southern in its racial attitudes, despite the northern victory in the Civil War. During the rest of the 19th century, the other black lawmakers who followed all came from the South. It wasn’t until Chicago voters elected Rep. Oscar De Priest in 1928 that a northern state had an African American sitting in the national legislature.
It would take Michigan until 1954 to follow suit. That’s when Charles Diggs, Jr. of Detroit won his House seat, positioning him to fight for civil rights legislation, to press for U.S. aid to the newly independent nations of Africa, to combat South African apartheid and to cofound the Congressional Black Caucus. And it was his abuse of that seat in a payroll kickback scheme that eventually sent him to federal prison.
Diggs was the first of five black federal lawmakers from Michigan so far, all from Detroit — John Conyers, Jr. and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick who still serve, and ex-Reps. Barbara-Rose Collins and George Crockett, Jr. Conyers, first elected in 1964, now chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
All play a role in our new book, African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press). There we tell: about Diggs fighting for justice in the high-profile case of Emmett Till — and later suffering the ignominy and disgrace of his felony conviction; about Conyers vigorously advocating the impeachment of President Richard Nixon; about Crockett orchestrating a lawsuit to challenge the Reagan administration’s support for a right-wing regime in El Salvador; about Collins facing an ethics complaint for allegedly misusing her congressional staff for political and personal advantage; and about Kilpatrick’s opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Charles C. Diggs, Jr.
In late August 1955, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago named Emmett Till was brutally murdered near the Mississippi Delta town of Money after at least two white men abducted him from his great-uncle’s home. The killers were enraged by what they considered Till’s offensively familiar behavior toward a white woman in a local grocery store. The discovery of Till’s mutilated body, weighted down in the Tallahatchie River by a heavy cotton gin fan tied around his neck, created a national sensation, especially in African American communities around the country.
Diggs was determined to keep attention focused on the case, to remind America of the racially motivated violence and brutality that was still an all too common occurrence and to use public outrage to prod the federal government into taking more action to protect the rights of black citizens. He called on the Justice Department to intervene in cases where the civil rights of African Americans had been violated because of their race, and he threatened to challenge the credentials of Mississippi’s representatives in Congress because restrictions on black voters also prevented them from serving on juries in cases like the Till murder.
Mississippi residents and officials were clearly less than pleased by Diggs’ appearance at the trial of the two white suspects, but when some suggested that it would make race relations more tense, Diggs responded that it was “obvious that relations are already strained, and my being on the scene would not make the situation any worse.” His presence had an impact, according to a reporter who covered the trial and wrote: “When he went down there, people lined up to see him. They had never seen a black member of Congress. Blacks came by the truckloads. Never before had a member of Congress put his life on the line protecting the constitutional rights of blacks.” An all-white jury acquitted the suspects.
On January 12, 1956, Diggs gave a floor speech about a recent Look magazine article in which the two suspects virtually admitted their guilt. Here are excerpts of his remarks:
The stunning revelations are so detailed and stated so positively, the magazine’s journalistic integrity and knowledge of libel law is so well established there is no doubt in my mind that the information came directly from the killers themselves, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. Safe within the legal confines of immunity from another trial for the same offense provided by the very Constitution which they and others of their breed have challenged, these men apparently grasped at the opportunity of selling this exclusive story for an undoubtedly handsome financial reward.
Their revolting attempt to justify the murder of the Till boy by emphasizing his alleged familiarity with Mrs. Milam and other white women is the product of incurably prejudiced minds.
The substance of this unsigned confession confirms the observations and investigations I made during my attendance at the trial for the defendants last September. I said, following their acquittal, that in my judgment the testimony of the defense witnesses was replete with perjury. The case itself had become obscured by obvious efforts to defy any criticism of Mississippi racial custom. Nothing more graphically illustrates the immediate need for corrective legislation by the Congress of the United States. Negroes must be guaranteed the right to vote without interference, intimidation or unwarranted restrictions so they may qualify to serve on juries and exercise influence in the election of fair-minded public officials.
Later came the fall from grace and power. In 1978 a grand jury in Washington indicted Diggs for a payroll kickback scheme in which he took an estimated $66,000 from staffers. He used some of the money for personal expenses and some for expenses of his Detroit funeral home, the House of Diggs. For example, evidence showed that some of the funds were spent on life insurance premiums, home mortgage payments and political contributions. One former congressional employee testified that she had spent 80 percent of her time working on his funeral home business and only 20 percent on congressional matters.
Even so, Diggs’s constituents re-elected him the month after his October 1978 jury conviction. His House colleagues, however, stripped him of committee and subcommittee chairmanships, and during the debate to censure him for ethical violations, no one spoke in Diggs’s defense. The Internal Revenue Service assessed unpaid taxes on the kickbacks.
A federal appeals court upheld his jury conviction on all mail fraud and false-statement charges. Only when the Supreme Court refused to review the case did Diggs resign from Congress. He served seven months of his three-year prison term and later ran a funeral home in Maryland before his death at age 75.
Here are excerpts from the U.S. Court of Appeals decision affirming the conviction:
On this appeal, the defendant does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence but contends rather that he lacked the requisite intent to defraud and that he acted within the bounds of his discretion to set the duties and salaries of his congressional employees.
The defendant’s argument erroneously equates a congressman’s discretion to define the duties of an employee with the unfettered power to divert monies intended for one purpose to another, completely unauthorized purpose.
Second, we find that the actual scheme to defraud has clearly been established. No House regulation or order authorized the use of the clerk-hire allowance for purposes other than the sole use and benefit of the staff of a congressman.
The defendant defrauded the public of not only substantial sums of money but of his faithful and honest services.
John Conyers, Jr.
A safe Democratic district and the blessings of the seniority system have made Conyers the longest-serving African American in Congress and chair of the House Judiciary Committee — a prominent forum he’s used since 1965 to press for civil liberties, civil rights and reforms of the nation’s justice system. In 1974 he was one of three black members of the committee — the others were Barbara Jordan of Texas and Charles Rangel of New York — as it considered whether to impeach Republican President Nixon.
The committee approved three articles of impeachment. The first article charged Nixon with obstruction of justice for his role in the Watergate cover-up, including impeding the Justice Department, the FBI and the Watergate special prosecutor. The second article addressed misuse of the IRS, the CIA, the Secret Service and the FBI for political reasons and in violation of individual rights. The third article dealt with disobeying committee subpoenas.
But that didn’t go far enough for Conyers, who criticized the committee’s failure to adopt an article about the unauthorized bombing of neutral Cambodia, arguing that Nixon’s rationale for the secret air strikes was a subterfuge that masked the president’s true motives under the guise of national security. He later wrote that Nixon had “usurped the power of the Congress to declare war. In so doing, he also denied the people of the United States their right to be fully informed about the actions and policies of their elected officials. The question we must ponder is, why the Congress has not called Mr. Nixon to judgment for the bombing of Cambodia?”
Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, before the full House could vote on impeachment and before the matter could proceed to a Senate trial. Vice President Gerald R. Ford, a former Republican U.S. representative from Grand Rapids, pardoned him the following month.
In these excerpts from his opening statement at the impeachment hearings, Conyers linked Nixon’s misconduct in office to the Vietnam War:
I suppose finally, we are determining what kind of government this Nation is going to have.
Certainly no one can accuse us of having rushed to judgment. This marks the third consecutive year that resolutions of impeachment have been filed against the president of the United States. I suppose that we should admit that we sit here not because we want to but because we have to, and we have to because for the first time in the history of this country, millions of citizens are genuinely afraid that they may have in office a person who might entertain the notion of taking over the Government of this country, a politician who has more effectively employed the politics of fear and division than any other in our time.
Richard Nixon, like the president before him [Lyndon Johnson], is in a real sense a casualty of the Vietnam war, a war which I am ashamed to say was never declared. The study of the 42 volumes of carefully compiled documents and papers and testimony revealed clearly the pressures of an administration so trapped by its own war policies and the desire to stay in office it was forced to enter into an almost unending series of plans for spying and burglary and wiretapping inside this country and against its own citizens without precedent in American history.
The president took the power of his office and, under the guise of protecting and executing the laws the he swore to uphold, he abused them and in so doing he has jeopardized the strength and integrity of the Constitution and the laws of the land and the protections that they ought to afford all of the people.
Witness the deception that the president practiced on the Congress and the American people when from May 17, 1969, he approved a secret bombing campaign personally that as a result caused more than 150,000 air strikes to take place and more than 500,000 tons of bombs dropped on a neutral nation. And yet two months after that date in which he had personally authorized this conduct, the president said, “I have tried to present the facts about Vietnam with complete honesty, and I shall continue to do so.”
And so, my friends, it seems to me that marked the beginning of the intelligence-gathering activity which under his direction or on his authority is unparalleled. These activities involved widespread and repeated abuses of power and illegal and improper activities by the executive agencies and, of course, wholesale violations of the constitutional rights of citizens.
George Crockett, Jr.
After Diggs resigned, Crockett, a former Detroit Recorder’s Court judge, won the seat the same day Ronald Reagan was elected president. U.S. policy toward Latin America during the Cold War often included support of right-wing political regimes and opposition to leftist regimes with actual or alleged communist ties.
In 1973, for example, the CIA had backed a military junta that assassinated leftist Chilean President Salvador Allende. Later, during the Reagan administration, the U.S. intervened in several Central American conflicts. In El Salvador, the U.S. supplied military advisers, military equipment and financial aid to the government — the Salvadoran Revolutionary Government Junta — which was engaged in a civil war with the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Front. In Nicaragua, U.S. assistance went to insurgent forces known as the Contras, who sought to oust the elected leftist Sandinista government; some of that money came from illegal U.S. arms sales to Iran.
In an effort to assert the constitutional authority of Congress in formulating foreign policy and to curb what they regarded as abuses of power by the presidency, members of the Congressional Black Caucus turned to the legal system. Crockett led 29 representatives, including 11 Caucus members, in a suit accusing Reagan and his secretaries of defense and state of violating the War Powers Clause of the Constitution, as well as the War Powers Resolution and the Foreign Assistance Act, by aiding the El Salvador government. The suit asserted that the El Salvador government was engaged in large-scale human rights violations, including political assassinations of innocent civilians, disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests. It asked the court to order the immediate withdrawal of U.S. military personnel, equipment and aid.
U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green sided with the administration and dismissed the suit. She concluded that the issue was “non-justiciable,” meaning that it was a political question that could not be reviewed by judges, and an appeals court panel agreed.
Although Crockett’s suit failed to persuade the courts to force policy changes on the White House, the legal challenge was significant because it raised crucial issues involving the country’s constitutional system of checks and balances among the three branches of government.
Parts of Judge Green’s decision follow:
The Court concludes that the fact-finding that would be necessary to determine whether U.S. forces have been introduced into hostilities or imminent hostilities in El Salvador renders this case in its current posture non-justiciable. The questions as to the nature and extent of the United States’ presence in El Salvador and whether a report under the [War Powers Resolution] is mandated because our forces have been subject to hostile fire or are taking part in the war effort are appropriate for congressional, not judicial, investigation and determination.
However, the question presented does require judicial inquiry into sensitive military matters. Even if the plaintiffs could introduce admissible evidence concerning the state of hostilities in various geographical areas in El Salvador where U.S. forces are stationed and the exact nature of U.S. participation in the conflict, the Court no doubt would be presented conflicting evidence on those issues by defendants. The Court lacks the resources and expertise (which are accessible to the Congress) to resolve disputed questions of fact concerning the military situation in El Salvador.
The subtleties of fact-finding in this situation should be left to the political branches. If Congress doubts or disagrees with the Executive’s determination that U.S. forces in El Salvador have not been introduced into hostilities or imminent hostilities, it has the resources to investigate the matter and assert its wishes.
Collins, who won her seat in 1990, had a reputation for confrontation. For example, she fired a gay staff aide out of fear he might be HIV-positive — two days after the aide’s partner died of AIDS. The former staffer filed a House grievance and received back pay and attorney fees, a settlement reached only after Collins lost her 1996 re-election bid.
In another instance, she filed a libel suit against the Detroit Free Press over an article that misquoted her as saying, “All white people, I don’t believe, are intolerant. That’s why I say I love the individuals, but I hate the race.” The newspaper acknowledged in a retraction that Collins had actually said “don’t like” rather than “hate.” A state appeals court threw out the libel case, finding no substantial difference between “hate” and “don’t like.” The court also noted that Collins “did not contest portions of the article in which she was quoted as saying that ‘God is going to have to burn [racism] out of white people’ or that ‘the only reason Dr. Martin Luther King was successful was because he said if blood had to flow, let it be my black blood, and not the blood of my white brother, and white people like to hear that kind of stuff.’”
Allegations raised by a watchdog group accused Collins of violating federal law and House ethics rules. In an October 1995 letter, the Congressional Accountability Project asked the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — better known as the Ethics Committee — to investigate. The group’s letter was based largely on press reports about how Collins’s congressional staff performed political and personal duties on government time and how she misused government resources and cheated her own campaign committee of thousands of dollars. The letter also called for an inquiry into allegations that Collins had accepted “thousands of dollars from a community scholarship fund intended to assist low-income students in her Detroit district” and used congressional stationery to solicit $2,000 corporate donations to a private community service fund.
The committee voted to conduct a preliminary inquiry, but a subcommittee ultimately recommended no further action after Collins lost her 1996 Democratic re-election primary. She later won a seat on the Detroit City Council.
Here are portions of the Congressional Accountability Project’s letter:
This letter constitutes a formal ethics complaint against Representative Barbara-Rose Collins for violating federal law and House Rules, which prohibit the use of congressional staff and other official resources for personal and campaign activities.
On August 9, 1995, Sarah Pekkanen of The Hill newspaper wrote that:
A former aide in Collins’ Detroit district office told The Hill that she spent up to 80 percent of her time doing work for Collins’ 1994 re-election campaign while on the congressional payroll.
The former staffer, Edith Lee-Payne, who served as Collins’ community affairs liaison during the spring and summer of 1994, charged that Collins routinely instructed her to perform campaign-related work, including fund raising.
Lee-Payne said she and other staffers used Xerox machines in the district office to copy material for bulk mailings for Collins’ re-election campaign, served as the “contact person” for local fund raisers, and collected and deposited checks and logged the amounts into a computer before sending copies to Collins.
Lee-Payne’s allegations were confirmed by four former Collins staffers, who said that they and other staffers performed campaign re-election work in her Washington office as well.
In an August 16, 1995, article in The Hill titled “Collins’ Aides Performed Personal, Campaign Duties,” Pekkanen reported that:
Staffers for Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins’ Detroit district office were given a list detailing personal and campaign-related work they were told to do while on the congressional payroll, according to documents obtained by The Hill.
One of the documents details a dozen job duties, including Item number 11, which spells out numerous “campaign-related” chores, such as depositing checks for campaign contributions, preparation of donor lists and paying campaign bills.
The Code of Ethics of Government Service states that “public office is a public trust.” If Congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins has engaged in the lawlessness alleged by her former employees, then she has violated the trust that her constituents have placed in her. I strongly urge you to immediately appoint an outside counsel to investigate the charges above.
Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick
Kilpatrick, a former state representative, successfully challenged Collins in the 1996 primary. Like many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, she has delved into issues related to U.S. foreign policy towards Africa. In her first term, she pushed for legislation to promote trade with Africa and helped host a conference on U.S.-African trade. She also became a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which oversees spending on foreign assistance. In that capacity, she made a number of trips to Africa to examine economic development, education and health programs, hunger and disaster relief, and efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic.
Of special concern was the brutal violence that erupted in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2003 and still rages four years later. Tens of thousands of people have died and several million people were displaced by the interethnic fighting that the U.S. government labeled genocide. But while the killing shocked the international community, effective action to stop it proved difficult to come by.
Kilpatrick spoke out on the House floor in July 2004, criticizing the U.S. government and the international community for failing to protect the lives of innocent victims in Darfur and calling on the United Nations to send an international force immediately.
Two years later, with the bloodshed unabated, Kilpatrick again addressed the House, passionately demanding action. Excerpts of her remarks:
The world is in total crisis. The conflict and the devastation in the Darfur region of Sudan is abominable. I call on the president of the United States, who named Andrew Natsios at the U.N. to be the Special Envoy, that we put the full might and credibility of what we have left in our country behind the genocide that is taking place in Darfur.
You have heard the numbers. Atrocities, government-sponsored terrorism, where the president of Sudan does not even acknowledge not only the U.N. forces, not only the African coalition that is there to help secure his people, but that genocide and the killings really exist.
I was on one of the delegations that went to Sudan earlier this year in a bipartisan, bicameral visit. It was outrageous what we saw. Yet, today, this government in Khartoum is now dropping bombs on the civilian population in the refugee camps. Just think about it. They have run them out of their villages. They have burned their villages. They have raped the women. They killed the men and had the children in total chaos and asking for help.
We are the most powerful nation in the world today. We say that all the time. We must rise up to save the young children, the women and the men for the sake of their own country.
President al-Bashir has turned his head on it. The Janjaweed, men on horses who ride herd on those villages, kill people, innocent civilians.
The security is deteriorating. There is a credible threat of famine that exists. More and more people are going hungry and starving, and the world relief food efforts are not able to get to the people who have been run off of their land.
The cease-fire is in shambles.
Rise up. We need the nations that surround the Sudan to speak up.
Egypt President Mubarak, I have been a strong supporter of Egypt, and I still will be, but you must speak up. You must do more. You and I have talked about this. You must do more.
Jordan, King Abdullah, you have got to get involved. You have got to get involved. People are dying as we speak.
The region must rise up. How can you let this happen one more time in any part of the world? These are people who cultivate and live and grow food before this atrocity which now has outlasted any other, including Rwanda, in terms of its devastation and loss of life.
The Chad-Sudan border that I visited on another occasion is overwhelmed by the people who are fleeing Sudan. Do we want to keep the chaos going? Do we not really have to sign up as God's people, one Nation under God and treat all of His people the same?
Darfur needs us to step up, the people, the children, the women, the men, the villages. We can do better.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Freedman teaches journalism at Michigan State University, where he is director of Capital News Service. Stephen Jones, a former reporter and copy editor for the Associated Press and Detroit Free Press is an assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. This article is adapted from their new book: African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History, published in October 2007 by Congressional Quarterly Press.