Production Team: A
Interview Date: November 6, 1986
Camera Rolls: 165-169
Sound Rolls: 1135-1137
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Charles Diggs, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 6, 1986, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
THIS IS THE UH, HEAD OF SOUND ROLL NUMBER 1135 TO GO WITH THE HEAD OF CAMERA ROLL NUMBER 165 FOR BSI EYES. AT THE HEAD OF THIS ROLL SEVERAL SECONDS OF REFERENCE TONE RECORDED AT -8 DB ON THE MODULOMETER OF AN AGRA 4.2 USING AN INTERNAL CRYSTAL OPERATING AT 60 HZ AND ACCORDING TO ALL INDICATIONS EVERYTHING IS OPERATING PROPERLY. BEGIN HEAD OF ROLL, SOUND ROLL 1135, CAMERA ROLL 165. COMING UP AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES DIGGS STARTING AT UH BEEP FLASH SLATE NUMBER001.
OK, UM, FIRST QUESTION I WANT TO ASK YOU ABOUT IS UH THE VOTER REGISTRATION RALLY AT MOUND BAYOU IN 1955. THAT OCCURRED ON, NOT TOO FAR FROM MONEY THAT SUMMER AND UM, I WANT TO KNOW IF YOU CAN TELL ME ABOUT THE RALLY AND ALSO YOUR IMPRESSIONS ABOUT THE BLACK COMMUNITY IN MISSISSIPPI AT THE TIME.
Well, the uh State of Mississippi has a very special significance er to the Diggs Family because that's where my father came from, my grandfather a minister and so on, and adding to the fact that I was the first Black to be elected er to Congress in er many years and er the first from Michigan, the invitation to come to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, er, for this er customary rally that they had involving voter registration was very significant er to me and it was the first major uh speech that I made after having been elected er to the Congress of the United States.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE RALLY IN TERMS OF THE SIZE AND THE IMPACT IT HAD ON YOU?
Well, the er it had a great er the Mound Bayou er rally had a great impact on me because my father was there, probably the first time he'd been in Mississippi since he was a child, and er he was up on the stage with me and er that er audience at Mound Bayou was er five thousand people under the tent and there was another five or ten thousand people outside of the tent uh that was listening to the program over the over the loud speakers. And given the state of matters in Mississippi at that time er er and the the kind of security problems that er I had had already. Um in Mound Bayou, umm, it, it had a tremendous impact.
YOU UH MENTIONED WHEN WE WERE TALKING, CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT THOSE BLACK COMMUNITIES WERE LIKE IN MISSISSIPPI, YOU WERE SAYING THAT THEY WERE IN A SENSE READY FOR LEADERSHIP BUT THAT THERE WAS NO LEADERSHIP THERE.
Well, they certainly were ready for leadership and er the leadership potentialities er were there, in Mound Bayou um but among independent kind of er potentials er that the reason that er er my Doctor Hosts was so effective uh in the State of Mississippi was the fact that er he was independent of system. He er ah he his earnings through being a medical doctor were sufficient er to er keep him from being dependent on the local economy, and uh, the same is true for certain other kinds of people, like the black morticians, er er anyone who er who er whose who was not dependent on that economy and Mound Bayou was an all-Black community and therefore, that helped uh to er undergird uhh the kind of independence that w that was necessary because so many people were dependent upon the system uh that they were compromised er in terms of er of seeking relief er from the er the the kinds of uh uh the lack of citizenship rights that uh that the average Blacks had in that area.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE FOR US GENERALLY THE SYSTEM OF SEGREGATION IN THE SOUTH AT THAT TIME AND IF IT AFFECTED YOU BEING A CONGRESSMAN FROM THE SOUTH.
Well, uh segregation in the South was er alive and well when I came to er Mississippi I was not a stranger to the South because I had been stationed in the South during the war, World War II, er and er I, as an enlisted man and and as an officer and er of course my family coming from the south had er uh also raised my uh my level of of of interest in the area uhh, but it was very stark. Umm, by law er uhm it affected every, every aspect of of of society. I can remember for example when I went to Fisk University er in 1942 uh when you crossed the river when you, when you left Cincinnati, you were moved from on the train up to th to a segregated part err as you went into Kentucky. I can remember er traveling from er er the North to the South as a as an enlisted man when I first went into the army in 1943 and uh, I traveled across the country and once I uh crossed the er Mason-Dixon er Dixon line the er and and went in into the dining car, uh they pulled a curtain around me so that I was er technically uh separated from the rest of the people who were in the in the dining room. And I could go on and on about being directed to go up in the balcony in theaters in the South er uh not being able to sit on the first floor and uh matters of that type. And it affected, obviously, employment er and er of course uh it affected politics because er uh they had uh fixed the primary system in in uh in these Democratic states er so that blacks could not er could not vote or they would be limited in their in their voting uh potentialities.
WOULD YOU TALK TO US ABOUT GETTING INVOLVED IN THE TILL CASE BECAUSE YOU FIRST OF ALL THOUGHT OF YOURSELF AS BEING A CONGRESSMAN AT LARGE FOR THE BLACK COMMUNITY, FOR BLACK AMERICANS, AND ALSO BECAUSE YOU THOUGHT THAT BEING THERE AS A REPRESENTATIVE OF CONGRESS MIGHT BE ABLE TO INSURE A BETTER UH, MORE HONEST MORE FAIR TRIAL. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT AND OTHER THINGS THAT GOT YOU INVOLVED IN THE TILL CASE?
Well, when I read about the Till eh the Emmett Till case er involving this young boy that had been fished out of the Tallahatchie River um all er mutilated er because he as I understood it dared to talk back to er white people er down in that community, I became immediately er interested uh first of all because it was Mississippi uh and which was the uh, the bottom line for the arch segregationists in the United States. Uh, and secondly, uh again, it was the home state of my, my parent, my father, my, and my grandfather and all the people on the Diggs side of the family. And, uh, and thirdly, I thought that, um, being a member of Congress uh, and being a pioneer member of Congress, uh that uh, uh, I had a, I had a special um, security kind of uh, of dimension there that uh, could serve the purpose well. And be a uh, a witness to the uh, execution of uh, or the prosecution of a case of this type and be able to uh speak first hand about it all over the country and back in Congress. Uh, hopefully, um with an enhancement that would uh, uh, be uh, in back of laws that uh, would uh correct the system and, and give inspiration to, to other interested parties all over the country.
WHAT WAS IT THAT YOU, WHAT WAS IT THAT MADE THIS CASE SO WELLKNOWN. WHY DID THIS PARTICULAR CASE HAVE SUCH A NATIONAL IMPACT IN YOUR OPINION?
Well, I think I uh, I contributed to the Kill—the the Till case being well-known by my presence. I uh, it was a, a focus for national media. I was the only Congressman that was there, and behind the fact that I was uh, a Black Congressman and just elected I think it added a whole lot to uh media interest in this matter and uh, because, uh, uh it was not the first time that uh, that a black person had uh suffered these uh, this kind of fate in that state. Um, but um, my presence, um without question uh, added to the uh, the media dimensions and uh, and it stimulated concern all over.
WERE THERE OTHER THINGS THAT UH, MADE THIS CASE TAKE SUCH A HIGH PROFILE?
Yes, um, I think the uh, the picture in the Jet Magazine of the, of the Till boy showing his mutilation after he was removed out of the river, I think that, that was a, that's probably one of the greatest media uh, products uh, in the last uh forty or fifty years because uh that picture uh, stimulated a lot of interest and a lot of anger on the part of blacks all over, all over the country. And, uh, I think the fact that uh the Till boy was uh, just a child uh, also added to, added to this matter.
CAN YOU GIVE US A SENSE OF UM, THE WAY THE TRIAL WAS CONDUCTED UM, JUST YOUR IMPRESSIONS BEING IN THE COURTROOM, UM AND THE IMPACT SEGREGATION HAD ON THE TRIAL AND THE WAY IT WAS CONDUCTED THERE.
Well, um it was the first time I had been in a courtroom. Um, and the…
CAN YOU, AGAIN, CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE UH, SENSE OF THE WAY THE TRIAL WAS CONDUCTED, WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING IN THE COURTROOM?
Well, it had a considerable impact upon me personally because it was the first time I had uh ever been in any courtroom. And when I entered the uh, the chambers, which was segregated, all of the, all of the black uh, spectators were in the back. Uh, and identified myself at the door to um, to the bailiff, uh, who took a note up to the judge um, and when the judge saw who I was, by my card, that I was a member of Congress, uh, uh, he invited me to sit with the, with the media people. Uh, as a matter of fact, that's the only, the only space that was available anyway, because uh, that little courtroom was, every seat was almost, every seat was taken except uh, uh, up there in the media, in the media gallery, which was, which was right up, right up front. And there was uh, of course a lot of buzzing, uh, when I entered the uh, the place and was placed in that uh, area. And uh, I think the judge said something about, uh, "Yeah, have that boy come on up here and sit down over here with these news reporters."**[laughter] So uh…
HOW DID… WERE YOU, WERE YOU SEGREGATED IN THE COURTROOM, DO YOU REMEMBER WHETHER YOU HAD TO SIT WITH THE BLACK REPORTERS OR…
Well, there weren't, I, I, I don't, I, I, I sat with the, in the media uh, with the media people and I um, if there were any, any, any blacks, uh, there were very few, maybe one or two and they were all, we were all in that area together at that particular point, But uh, when I reflect upon it, I don't remember any blacks being in that group. So they may have been out there sitting in the back someplace.
CAN YOU GIVE US A WORD PICTURE OF WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO SIT THERE IN THE COURTROOM FOR THE DURATION OF THE TRIAL?
Well, there was a great deal of tension. At the Till trial because of the circumstances uh, obviously, uh, the racial element, uh, um the community where the court was located is uh, is, although Mississippi is is a rural state, uh, this was a very, very rural community. And, um, um, they were not used to the kind of attention that uh, was generated by the Till case and uh, and also by the racial dimensions uh, brought in a whole lot of people from the outside, black and white, uh from the north, that uh, is, was always ana—an anathema to uh, uh, to the whites residents of of the area. And, uh, uh, the tension not only existed in the courtroom, but outside in the area across the street at the uh, uh, around the courthouse, uh, uh, people were uh sitting around uh, spitting tobacco and uh, and discussing uh this case and and its racial implication, uh, in a way that is pretty typical of that area at that particular time.
WAS THERE KIND OF A, I DON'T KNOW WAS THERE AS MUCH TENSION, BUT WAS THERE, HOW DID THEY REGARD THIS CASE AS FAR AS YOU COULD SEE?
Well, they, they were tense too, um, not not, not not in anticipation of the results. I think it was almost a foregone conclusion that the, that uh these people would not be found guilty. Uh, but uh, they were tense because of the attention that uh, the case generated. And, they were tense because it brought in a whole lot of people from the outside and uh, that uh, that they always considered to be their enemies anyway: people from the North, the reporters the uh, and other leadership elements. Uh, and just plain people from uh, from outside of that area even within Mississippi they, they never seen anything like that.
IF YOU COULD TALK TO THE, WHY YOU THINK IT IS UH, THE WITNESSES, THAT THE BLACK WITNESSES WERE ABLE TO TESTIFY AND THE INFLUENCE YOU MIGHT HAVE HAD ON THAT.
In talking about the Till trial, one has to uh, repeat the atmosphere, this is Mississippi in 1955, uh, uh, and with a long history of uh intimidation of witnesses, uh, fear on the part of blacks to testify, in the racial situations in particular. And for uh, someone like Moses Wright uh, and and others to testify against um, white uh, defendants uh, in a situation like this was, uh, was historical. And uh, I think that uh, one of the reasons that they had that kind of confidence was uh, the fact that, uh, I was present uh, a member of Congress, uh, who obviously would, uh, relay his, uh, his thoughts and, and the images there to a much larger crowd. And the fact uh, that uh, national media was present, that uh, was going to uh, accurately uh portray the story of uh, of Mississippi justice at that particular time. In, in a way that would uh, would reflect uh, adversely uh, upon uh, the status of justice in that state.
CAN TELL ME ABOUT THE, THE UH, DECISION AND HOW YOU LEARNED ABOUT IT AND WHAT FEELINGS THAT, THAT EVOKED?
Well, I had already concluded, uh, that that uh, however the Till trial decision went, it would create animosity and and have, have other, perhaps uh, dimensions of security uh, on both sides. And so after the uh, all of the witnesses, uh, after the case, uh had been heard, uh, I gathered Mr. Moses Wright who was the chief witness, uh and I gathered him together and, and started, uh, and, and left. Uh, I put him in my car and we drove to uh, to Memphis, Tennessee, uh, and uh, then I uh, flew him back to, I flew him to Chicago. Uh, and so, I heard the verdict, we heard the verdict uh, over the radio as we were traveling from Tallahatchie to Memphis, uh, heard that uh, that the defendants uh, had been found not guilty.
WHAT, HOW DID THAT MAKE YOU FEEL, THAT, YOU HAD BEEN IN THE COURTROOM AND YOU HEARD THE TESTIMONY AND YOU EVEN BEING A CONGRESSMAN, UH, THERE IN PRESENCE, YOU, IT HADN'T CHANGED ANYTHING, DO YOU HAVE ANY FEELINGS ABOUT THAT?
Yes, I, I, first of all, um felt that I had made the correct decision in leaving before that uh, decision was rendered in the, in the Till case. Uh, because of the uh, the reaction that took place, uh, whites, uh for example, all, um, uh jubilant about the fact that uh, these, these white men had been found not guilty. I'm sure that uh, if Moses Wright, uh had been there, he would've been, uh, the subject of a, of a great deal of hostility, and perhaps and not perhaps, but harmed on a part of uh, of whites um, and uh, uh, as far as a verdict was concerned, I was not surprised at that because that was uh, typical of uh, Mississippi justice at that particular time.
Oh yes, I uh, I certainly was angered by the uh, the decision although um, I was not surprised by it. And I was uh, uh, certainly uh, uh strengthened in my belief that something had to be done about uh, the uh, dispensation of justice in in that state, and, I, I uh, returned to Congress, uh, uh, that week determined to uh, um, try to get some corrections, uh, uh, by um, by the Congress of the United States and also to report to the uh, Administration at that time, uh, in an effort to get the President and the Justice Department, uh to uh, uh, uh, do something, uh about uh, this this kind of injustice in this in this state.
DO YOU REMEMBER IF MOSES WRIGHT HAD ANY REACTION, IF YOU REMEMBER WHEN HE HEARD?
Not really. He was a young fellow, he um he uh, not very talkative, uh he certainly was determined to uh, uh, give a true story and uh, I certainly admired him for that, Um, but we, I took him back to Chicago and that was, that was the last I saw of him.
AFTER THE TRIAL YOU WENT TO UM, NAACP SPEAKING TOUR AND YOU TALKED ABOUT THE CASE IN, IN DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE COUNTRY…
THIS IS UH, THE HEAD OF SOUND ROLL NUMBER 1136 PICKS UP WITH CAMERA ROLL NUMBER 167 BSI EYES. AND UH, WE'RE CONTINUING THE INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES DIGGS ON NOVEMBER 6. COMING UP IS SLATE NUMBER SEVEN.
OK, UM, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE UH SPEAKING TOUR ENGAGEMENT THAT YOU WENT ON SPONSORED BY THE NAACP AND THE SIZE OF THE CROWDS AND THE IMPACT THAT YOU THINK THIS HAD ON SPREADING THE STORY?
Well, following the Till Trial, the er National Association for the Advancement of Colored People er NAACP ere r had been impacted too by their membership er and their leadership around the country and they wanted to schedule me uh, in er for speaking engagements er in in various communities er and uh I agreed to do this and er proceeded to er er carry out these engagements er in the several states of the union, both north and south. Er all of these rallies were overflowed um by er by the by spectators and uh well publicized by the media and obviously had uh a special impact er to hear first hand from somebody who had been at the trial er about the er the dimensions of the, er, injustice of the Mississippi, er, and southern er, er judicial system er that I, that I described er very vividly.
DO YOU REMEMBER ANY OF THE, ANY EVENTS OR THINGS THAT HAPPENED SPECIFICALLY AT, AT RALLIES ANY—WHAT WAS, OR WHAT DID, WHAT DID IT FEEL LIKE TO BE ON THE, TO BE THE TARGET OF SO MANY PEOPLE COMING TO HEAR THIS?
Well, it uh it it it it simulated a lot of er a lot of interest um a lot of um people who ah er had not were not members of NAACP er took out memberships, they made contributions er ah it it raised their level of concern er about umm these various matters and and it dramatized er the need for er corrective legislation and dramatized the need for uh ah changes uh in uh in our national uh uh uh justice system uhm to correct er these these kinds of of uh inequities at the local level and so it uh it stimulated a lot of people to make contact with their, their members of Congress. A lot of people wrote to the president at the White House er er and of course the media uh expanded upon uh these, these items also.
I'D LIKE TO JUMP AHEAD TO MONTGOMERY, TALK ABOUT THAT FOR A MINUTE. COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR FUND-RAISING EFFORTS THERE AND UH HOW YOU RAISED MONEY AND ALSO WHO THE CONTRIBUTERS WERE WHO GAVE YOU MONEY?
Well, after er (cleared throat) the Montgomery bus uh boycott um matter, began er um under the leadership of uh Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., um I er began to make an appeal through a radio program that I was conducting, back in Detroit, and, as a result of that program, I collected some ten thousand dollars uh, to help finance er the er execution of the er Montgomery boycott because er uh people were not uh using the busses but er there were expenses involved in transportation and er uh and and and related matters. And so after raising this this money I contacted er Dr. King who at that time was uh, a, a Baptist minister er er who hadn't been heard of too much outside of that area. Uh, and he invited me to come down they were having um their um nightly rallies er er to uh um maintain the concern of the local people in in the whole Montgomery matter and er uh the these rallies were held at at Dr. King's church, and I was invited to come down to speak at one of the rallies and uh, I came down and, and brought this money. It was the first time I met Dr. King and never forgot that, because the only only time that he ever spoke at a er at a er testimonial dinner er, rally a testimonial was for me. Uh, I think it was 1963 was the first and only time, he, he had thousands of engagements and invitations to speak but he never forgot that uh that uh I brought that first piece of money down there and er so he spoke at my came to Detroit and spoke at my rally.
WHAT KIND OF A, A MAN WAS KING AT THAT TIME? YOU GAVE US AN INTERESTING DESCRIPTION OF HIM AS BEING SOMEONE WHO WAS CATAPAULTED FORWARD BY CIRCUMSTANCES. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THAT FOR US?
Yes, I I think that if things had er moved er along normal lines in Montgomery he probably would have also moved along normal lines and er uh been er a er, a very popular er, Baptist minister. I did not er I did not detect anything in his makeup that er suggested that uh unless they unless these er extraordinary circumstances er had arisen I did not detect anything that would have uh, projected him beyond uh being a uh a Baptist minister uh um in Montgomery and perhaps beyond that or he may have stayed there or he may have ultimately gone to back to you know to Atlanta and succeeded his father, but uh there was no history of uh any involvement of Dr. King before that time.
IN IN IN THINKING ABOUT KING, HOW UM, HOW DO YOU THINK THAT HE EVOLVED OVER THE YEAR-LONG BOYCOTT? DO YOU, HOW DO YOU THINK HE CAME INTO HIS OWN IN TERMS OF LEADERSHIP?
Well, um, Montgomery at that particular time didn't have much leadership as we know it today. Er I had I knew something about Montgomery because er um for fourteen months from 19 from May of 1944 until uh June of 1945 uh I was stationed at Tuskegee, Alabama, about forty miles away. Uh the uh Army Air Force uh which was uh the headquarters for the the Black pilots er and er I er it was a typical uh rather small Black community uh where most of the practices er of of racial segregation had been accepted uh and people went went went on about their business. And er the er fact that er Dr. King er saw fit to er take the leadership role in this situation er um was I think the er the thing that in addition to Mrs. Rosa Parks' er er refusal to er uh compromise on this question was a thing that really really brought it about. In addition of that there's another person that was involved in that er situation that has not gotten nearly the kind of uh recognition that he ought to. And that happened to be a former, a former lieutenant er at Tuskegee um who er at the time of the boycott had er gone to medical school and was a local physician, uh Moses Jones, Dr. Moses Jones. And he became the treasurer for the er um Montgomery boycott situation. Uh he was independent financially and he had served in segregated armed forces as I had and had had his problems in uh at Tuskegee forty miles away, uh as I did and er he he was one of the one of the er prime stimulants for er the kinds of activity that uh that the Montgomery boycott er uh proceeded to take.
WHO, DO YOU REMEMBER GOING BACK TO THE FUN RAISING? WHO, WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE GAVE YOU MONEY? DO YOU REMEMBER?
Well, it uh, I had a radio program back in those days er. It was a very popular program, and er these contributions came through the mail—from various sources er people who listened. They they came from people who were um unemployed, people who were professional people er and er just just other citizens, black and white, uh, male and female.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE SOUTHERN MANIFESTO AND UH, CAN YOU TELL US WHAT THAT WAS?
Well, the Southern manifesto, as the, as the name implies was uh a statement of policy regarding uh uh racial uh matters on the part of the um congressional representatives er from the from the southern states and er it was a uh a statement designed to er draw the line um regarding er how far they uh would ex be expected to go to try to correct some of these matters or uh on the other hand er er it was a er a method of er of explaining um what their position was er and the rationale behind it and their determination to maintain that system which uh, they considered to be uh not only in the interest of the South but in the interest of the country.
IF YOU COULD RECOUNT FOR US AGAIN THAT, THE SOUTHERN MANIFESTO WHAT IT WAS AND ITS MEANING AND ALSO YOUR, YOUR REACTION AND THE REACTION OF OTHER CONGRESSMEN AND BLACKS TOGETHER.
Well, the Southern manifesto was a statement of policy uh that was produced by uh southern representatives in Congress uh, senators and and and members of the House er also by southern governors and other elected officials er to uh, dramatize the position of the er South uh in justifying um se segregation and their determination to maintain uh segregation, uh, and uh to prevent any changes in uh in those policies in those particular states. Uh not only in the interests of southerners but in the interests of the United States as they as they saw it at at that particular time. And er of course um the reaction was er er quite er formidable on the part of Blacks and other people who er er who looked at er our social economic and political system er er for er solutions to the inequities uh that existed and er it it created uh quite a er um a quite a debate in the country. Um and um this debate was uh the basis upon which er er legislation was er fostered in in in the House er and in the Senate of the United States to to to overcome er this kind of resistance and it er dramatized to the er to the uh to the administration in particular, the national administration in particular, er the necessity for er uh um er modifying um um these these kinds of statements er and and for pursuing with a great deal more aggression er er um some positive answers to the problems that er uh that uh that the manifesto discussed.
DO YOU REMEMBER ANY REACTION FROM THE EISENHOWER ADMINISTRATION OR FROM OFFICIALS IN THAT ADMINISTRATION TO THIS STATUTE?
Well, Eisenhower, President Eisenhower, General Eisenhower er um always had to be pushed. Er his position on on er on matters at best was neutral. And, in most instances um he he did not want to make any kind of change er and er er he he never really took any aggressive er actions. Uh uh he always relied upon er er being er er pushed by the Cong by the Congress of the United States really er had to er take the bull by the by the horns and er pursue a a correction of these inequities. Eisenhower who who who er grew up er er in a segregated military establishment er was er really not impressed with any kind of changes that uh that were er being talked about.
UM, DID THE A, THE ADMINISTRATION REACT AT ALL TO THE BOYCOTT THAT YOU REMEMBER?
Well, they had to take notice everyone had to take notice of of the of the boycott and er the reactions er were er um uh varied um and er er there were some areas and and some elements that were more aggressive than others but er it it uh it it er it was not uh a matter that was nationally embraced. Uh, it all depended upon er er on what parties were involved and er and what influences uh they could bring to bear one way or the other or none at all.
CAN YOU UH DESCRIBE THE SENSE OF COMMUNITY EMPOWERMENT UH, THE CONFIDENCE THAT CAME OUT OF THE BOYCOTT NOT JUST IN MONTGOMERY BUT ALSO IN, IN TERMS OF THE NATIONAL BLACK COMMUNITY?
Well, I I think it uh I think the er Montgomery boycott um raised the level of uh attention and concern of the of the Black uh community regarding uh racial matters all over the country, north and south, and I think that it demonstrated er that er solidarity on the part of Black people to to correct these er these inequities uh er can't could be effective. Er I think it was a um a a model that was er um the basis for er, uh other community actions around the country and so I think it was one of the real landmarks in the er um correction of injustice, and it was errrrr one of the landmarks in terms of stimulating uh Black reaction and and Black er corrective action er around the country.
THE, I WAS GOING TO ASK DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN THE BOYCOTT ENDED, DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR REACTION TO HEARING THAT IT WAS OVER AND HAD BEEN SUCCESSFUL? FINALLY?
Well, I I the the the general reaction certainly on the part of uh Blacks and and their supporters was one of jubilation er and er of relief that er this method er proved to be successful. Uh, many people had been advocating this kind of solidarity in the past but er to have it actually demonstrated in such a dramatic way as it was uh, in the Montgomery boycott situation, er um I think er lifted the veil, er, that had er shut off er, er consideration of Blacks toward this kind of method in the past.
UM, I WANNA JUMP AHEAD TO SELMA AND UM I KNOW YOU WERE SAYING YOU WEREN'T SURE OF YOUR MEMORY BUT IT'S BEEN GREAT SO FAR, SO A FEW QUESTIONS. UM, WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO TAKE A DELEGATION FROM COMGRESS TO, TO SELMA IN FEBRUARY IN 65 AND WHAT DID YOU THINK THAT WAS GOING TO ACHIEVE, GOING THERE?
Well, er, many of these members of Congress had never been south before. They certainly had no um, real understanding of er segregation and and how it er applied to er um uh Black folks uh in in those areas. It was rather academic and so I thought that er their their coming to Selma at that time would would give them er a deeper understanding of the inequities er and the injustices that existed in uh in in Alabama and er and and and other parts of the South. Uh secondly, I I thought that the er the fact that a group of members of Congress er er would come to Selma, the first time that this had ever happened uh before uh uh uh would be uh an indication to er the local officials that er this matter was being er seriously considered er at the national level and that uh uh that if uh these inequities continued er that the Congress of the United States er would be er obliged to take, take action to correct to to correct those inequities.
YOU IN UM, DURING CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION MET WITH REV. KING AND OTHER LEADERS OF THE MOVEMENT THERE IN SELMA. CAN YOU UH, TALK ABOUT THE MEETING IN TERMS OF WHO WAS THERE, AND UH, WHAT YOU DISCUSSED, THE TONES OF THE MEETINGS, JUST GIVE US A, A SENSE OF WHAT THAT WAS ABOUT.
Well, I think it uh, the meeting served to um um indicate er that Dr. King was being taken seriously, and er it indicated uh that um uh the local people er better start listening er because er uh members of Congress er in that kind of er in that kind of a grouping um obviously added a lot of credibility to uh to Dr. King and the entire movement. And I think that that's what it served as much as anything. The discussions uh were er ah eh in involved er you know customary uh exchanges of er ideas about er segregation and and uh and uh discussions as to uh what action er they were they the, the Congressmen were going to take uh legislatively, um, and uh, and matters of that type.
DO YOU REMEMBER UH, WHO WAS AT THE MEETING WHO, WHO WERE AT THE MEETINGS, WHO THE, THE PLAYERS WERE?
Well, Dr. King and his entourage, um which included uh Ralph Abernathy and and people of that type. They were there were local people also that were involved and uh and the Congressmen. Uh, that was it.
UH, THIS IS THE HEAD OF SOUND ROLL NUMBER 1137 PICKS UP WITH CAMERA ROLL NUMBER 139 BSI EYES. AND WE ARE CONTINUING OUR INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES DIGGS ON NOVEMBER 6, 1985 COMING UP WILL BE SLATE NUMBER NINE
UM IF YOU COULD UH, TELL US WHAT KIND OF IMPACT YOU THINK THIS, THIS UH, THIS CONGRESSONAL TRIP HAD ON THE UH, THE WHITE CONGRESSMEN YOU BROUGHT DOWN TO SELMA.
I think it had a considerable impact um…
IF YOU COULD START WITH THE…
On the er…
…think that the the Kee—the Congressional delegation that went to Selma umm had a considerable impact upon umm local circumstances and also on legislation that er was finally er er enacted. Um I was the only Black member of that delegation. uh The er other members er came from districts that uh were not predominately Black and I think that er the very presence of a group of that of that type uh in Selma for the first time err impacted upon the local people er it uh it gave credibility to our crusade for uh correction of the inequities and I think that er it er inspired the Congressmen uhm when they returned to Washington to sponsor and co-sponsor legislation that ultimately was enacted er particularly involving voter rights and er um I think it added a whole new dimension uh uh to the uh, to the Civil Rights Movement.
DO YOU RECALL ANY UM, INDIVIDUAL WHITE CONGRESSMEN UM, WHO WERE MOVED FROM OPPOSITION TO THE BILL TO, TO SUPPORT OF THE BILL OR EVEN TO VOCAL SUPPORT OF THE BILL? UM, DO YOU RECALL ANY MINDS BEING CHANGED?
Well, I don't think uh if somebody uh uh was opposed to it ahh I I think they they they they maintained their opposition that that was really mostly southern members of Congress. Uh, there were few er from er ah areas ah in in the north that were not but I but more importantly I think it moved a lot of people who were either neutral or er er or er uninterested. I think it moved them to er to take active roles in in this connection, that that was the big impact.
DO YOU REMEMBER ANY UH INDIVIDUALS WHO WHO SAID ANYTHING PARTICULARLY TO YOU ABOUT THEIR SUPPORT OF THE BILL OR THEIR OPPOSITION TO THE BILL?
Well, not opposition. They knew better than to talk to me in opposition uh to uh to the bill uh but uh um there were um without question you you could see the er uh the um rising interest in legislation after after we made that trip along with these other members of Congress to Selma. And uh and after we came back and spoke on the House floor under special orders er to er talk about our experiences and talk about our first-hand observation of these these kinds of inequities, particularly the voting rights thing. And uh appearances er before the er various committees that was handling the legislation, House Judiciary Committee and and so on. I don't think those members er would have done those sorts of things without er having had that first-hand experience.
IF YOU CAN TALK WITH US UM, IN PERSONAL TERMS ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE IN THE ARMY AND WHAT THAT WAS LIKE AND THE IMPACT IT HAD IN YOUR ACTIVISM LIFE.
Well, I, I think that my army experience er had a considerable impact upon er my, er, uh activity, in the civil rights er area uh later because I, I had had some experiences uh with segregation in the North, uh in Detroit, for example. Uh and I had had experiences uh in the South when I was a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, so I was not a stranger to it, and um um going into an army that was segregated er uh and going into areas where um Black servicemen were segregated from from the other uh, other servicemen um in in various states um made me uh uh certainly determined to to try to do something about it er and uh as an enlisted man I was a a sergeant er er I went in as a private and uh I uh as a private first class, as a corporal (chuckle) in South Dakota as a as a private in uh in Michigan uh and as a PFC in, uh, in Atlanta, uh, and as a sergeant in, er, in, in Florida. I, I er um certainly came in contact with segregation in in many ways and then after I graduating from officer candidate school at uh air force administration at that time in Miami Beach, Florida, and er and being assigned to Tuskegee from there, well, actually being a officer candidate, we we had to march on the inside of and to the rear of the ranks so we wouldn't be seen too much uh and er er and all that sort of business, Uh uh and then um in Opelika, Alabama, for example, er where they had er German er prisoners of war that could that could go into the restaurants in downtown Opelika and and I had to be handed food out the, through a hole in the wall in the back er. All these things were recalled vividly. And one of the first things that I got into when I became a member of Congress was uh er was er segregation and discrimination in the armed forces uh that was one of my principal um uh subjects er and er I was er sent by Eisenhower, for example, er er into all of the uh installations in the in the Pacific er area all the way from Honolulu all the way to Tokyo er including Okinawa and er and all of those places in between and er er it caused me also to get Kennedy to er President Kennedy to er er revive the er the Commission on er Discrimination in the Armed Services eh and eh from that it uh went into other areas –it uh it it raised my level of of activism as it did to Congressman Bob Nix from Philadelphia, the Black Congressman who who er had his problems during the war. Er it impacted upon er Coleman Young, the present mayor of the city of Detroit, er who fought segregation er in er officers' clubs, er uh in New Jersey and and so on.
COULD YOU TALK ABOUT THAT SENSE OF FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY? I WONDERED IF THAT WAS THE SENSE THAT YOU KNOW, WHO WHO WHO WERE YOU FIGHTING FOR IF YOU COULDN'T HAVE THE RIGHTS YOURSELF?
Well, that's that's true um and er it it it certainly was dramatized by er by these kinds of experiences.
…INCORPORATE MY… WHAT, THAT CONCEPT IN YOUR ANSWER? I'M SORRY.
Well, it er um um we went to war to er er preserve to save to expand democracy and if we couldn't er come out of that kind of experience and not fight for it ourselves here in the United States Well, I uh went to war uh to uh help save and preserve democracy er and to expand it and so um to have had that kind of experience and and and and come out of the army into civilian life and not er continue the fight for democracy would would have uh been inconsistent uh and so that that certainly was a uh very important uh uh motivation in uh in uh the kind of activism that uh I was engaged in, regarding the Civil Rights Movement er in and out of Congress later on. I think that the uh after the war in the fifties and in the first part of the sixties our main thrust there was to raise the consciousness of uh of Americans, Black and White, uh about this whole question of segregation and discrimination and in inequities uh uh politically economically uh socially and uh and then once raising their their level of consciousness and concern then beginning to move into er er legislative er corrections er principally at the national level, and also to um impact upon um the policy of our national administrations er uh under Eisenhower and er um and his successors.
PERFECT THAT'S JUST WHAT WE NEEDED.