U.S. Congressman John Conyers Talks Life and Political Legacy

A look into the life and legacy of the congressman who has served nearly five decades in the House of Representatives

As an 8-year-old boy, John Conyers Jr. was terrified when his father joined 50 union organizers who were brutally beaten by guards outside the Ford Rouge Plant in 1937.

At 14, he witnessed Detroit's 1943 race riot, when Blacks were pulled off streetcars, beaten and killed by White mobs.

Despite that treacherous climate, he was emboldened to pioneer new ground for "colored people" in business and leadership-as his father led weekly family meetings at the dining room table in their Detroit home. 

At the time, John Conyers Sr. was fighting for equality as a union organizer, spurred to action while earning 10 cents per hour less than the White men painting cars alongside him on the Chrysler assembly line. With a fourth-grade education and roots in segregated Macon, Ga., the senior Conyers foresaw new doors of opportunity opening for his and wife Lucille's four sons.

"As time progressed, we discovered that suddenly that big door that had been sealed shut for hundreds of years cracked open with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the civil disturbances of the 1960s," recalls John Conyers Jr.'s brother Nathan Conyers, 81, a retired attorney who for 33 years owned the Conyers Riverside Ford dealership in Detroit. "Our dad prepared us, that if that door opened for us, to lean against it and push it and dare to go through it, not knowing what was on the other side-then to hold it open for as many people to go through as possible."

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John Conyers Jr. bolted through that door into an awe-inspiring career that will culminate 50 years of service in the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of his current term. And the passionate Democrat is still pushing as hard as ever for jobs, justice and peace. For that, he will be celebrated during a tribute on Sunday, Sept. 29 in Detroit. The event is free and open to the public.

"Congressman John Conyers Jr. is a tireless champion for all of South Eastern Michigan's working families, especially the many struggling to get by," President Obama said in 2012 when endorsing Conyers' bid for his 25th term. He added that Conyers' re-election would "keep metro Detroit and the country moving in a job growth direction."

Now, as a strong advocate for jobs and health care, the 84-year-old Highland Park native is the second longest-serving member of the House, the longest-serving African-American in Congress, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, former chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations and former chairman and now highest-ranking Democrat of the powerful House Judiciary Committee.

Conyers has introduced nearly 50 bills and helped Detroit receive hundreds of millions of dollars; funds for public housing renovated the Jeffries Projects, now a mixed-income community. He also helped create the Empowerment Zones and secure $28 million to prevent the closing of the Detroit Medical Center in 2003.

"John Conyers is America's congressman, because he has worked courageously to help pass laws that guarantee our civil rights, fairness in labor relations and government accountability," says the Rev. Dr. Jim Holley of Detroit's Historic Little Rock Baptist Church. In 2005, he was inspired to spearhead a Conyers tribute, after witnessing the global outpouring of praise when Rosa Parks died.

"While John Conyers is still with us, working as passionately as ever, it's time to honor and praise him for making Detroit, America and the world a better place."

HONOR AND PRAISE

That praise will include: a keynote address from Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia); comments by Congressman John Dingell, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton; and performances by the Four Tops, jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, gospel singer Karen Clark-Sheard and the 150-voice John Conyers Jr. Mass Gospel Choir.

"It's been 50 years since Medgar Evers was killed," says the Rev. Wendell Anthony, head of the Detroit Branch NAACP, "50 years since the little girls were killed in Birmingham, Ala. And 50 years since Dr. King gave his 'I Have a Dream Speech' in Detroit, then Washington. Dr. King was the premiere prophet of the 20th century, and it is very significant that John Conyers is the only politician that Dr. King ever endorsed."

Well before John Conyers earned that endorsement, the Northwestern High School graduate was a 21-year-old U.S. Army recruit attending Officer Candidate School in Virginia. He enjoyed visiting Congress to watch lawmakers debate issues. Suddenly he realized, "I can do that."

After serving one year in the Korean War-which incited his opposition to war-Conyers returned to Detroit. With the G.I. Bill and inspiration from the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education, he earned bachelor's and law degrees from Wayne State University. He is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

From 1959 until 1961, he was an aide to Congressman John Dingell (the longest serving member of the House of Representatives) and became a senior partner in the Conyers, Bell and Townsend law firm.

In 1963, he participated in the Freedom Day voter registration drive in Selma, Ala., and King's marches. Conyers joined the Washington march because he saw it as a pivotal moment. "I sensed it was history," he told the VisionaryProject.com. I wanted to be with (Dr. King). I wanted to be connected … I knew it was important."

After that, Conyers enlisted Rosa Parks to lobby King to endorse his bid for Congress.

"I was begging for an endorsement," Conyers told the VisionaryProject.com. On Good Friday at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, he says King did just that.

"I won my election by 128 votes the first time I ever ran for office," Conyers recalls. "Every vote counts, but it was Martin's influence" that helped win the election.

During his first year in office, Conyers helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and won a seat on the Judiciary Committee.

That year, 1965, Conyers hired Rosa Parks as a secretary for his Detroit office, where she remained until 1988. Conyers helped calm rioters during Detroit's 1967 riot.

"As a young girl, I remember the congressman was one of the few people who could stand on top of a car and address residents during the '67 rebellion, and they would listen to him," recalls JoAnn Watson, who served as Conyers' public liaison from 1997 until 2003 and is a Detroit City Council member. "Congressman Conyers is a genuine hero in every respect."

EFFECTING CHANGE

King's assassination spurred Conyers to introduce a bill to establish King's birthday as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"It took a full 15 years from the time I first introduced it on April 5, 1968 to its passage in the fall of 1983," Conyers says on his congressional webpage. "Through most of those 15 years, the idea of a federal holiday honoring an African American civil rights leader was considered a radical idea."

In 1969, Conyers was one of 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which empowers Black lawmakers to advocate for people of color.

Two years later, Conyers' criticism of President Richard Nixon landed him on Nixon's notorious Enemies List. In 1974, Conyers voted for Nixon's impeachment.

"John went to Washington as a radical," says brother Nathan. "As such, he was never an insider." When President Lyndon B. Johnson unveiled his highly praised Great Society programs during the 1960s, Conyers criticized him.

Nathan recalls, "John said, 'Unless the Great (Society) program has a component for full employment for every American who wants to work, it ain't worth a damn.'"

During President Jimmy Carter's 1977-81 term, a Washington Post headline said, as brother Nathan recalls, "John Conyers says this country needs more than grin and grits."

On a lighter note, Conyers' lifelong passion for jazz-he played the trumpet in high school-inspired him to introduce the Jazz Preservation Act of 1987, which declares jazz as the only true American art form.

In 1989, Conyers introduced the bill HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, saying Blacks should be compensated for slavery.

"I have re-introduced HR 40 every Congress since 1989, and will continue to do so until it's passed into law," Conyers says on his webpage. "I chose the number of the bill, 40, as a symbol of the 40 acres and a mule that the United States initially promised freed slaves."

In 1989 and 1993, Conyers made unsuccessful bids against incumbent Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.

Meanwhile, he married Monica Esters in 1990. Their sons are John James Conyers III and Carl Edward Conyers. She later became Detroit City Council president pro tempore, but in 2010 was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for accepting bribes. Released last December, she remains on probation. But the congressman has not allowed personal problems to hinder his work, which includes strong ties to Africa.

SURPASSING EXPECTATIONS

In 1994, when the Rev. Anthony led Detroiters in raising $1 million in supplies for genocide-ravaged Rwanda, Conyers contacted President Bill Clinton. As a result, the Department of Defense transported the materials on cargo planes, and Africare distributed the goods.

"People need to recognize that John goes beyond the level of expectation," Anthony says. "He will work on your behalf when everybody else has gone to sleep."

In 2001, Conyers traveled to the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. "They declared slavery a crime against humanity," recalls Watson. "Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela were there. It was a magnificent coming together of worldwide voices."

Then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred; Conyers talked about the aftermath in Michael Moore's film, "Fahrenheit 9/11" in 2004. All the while, he condemned President George W. Bush and voted against the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

That year, Conyers introduced the United States National Health Care Act, calling for free health care to every resident. The bill is being reviewed in the House.

"Congressman Conyers, one of the most energetic and prolific legislators in our history, understands the legislative process and … that it can take years to move an important bill," says Isaac Robinson, Conyers' legal counsel and senior advisor from 2010 to 2013, and 2012 campaign director. "Congressman keeps fighting because he … believes that more gains will be made."

Last month, Conyers called for the resignation of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, and has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review Michigan's emergency manager law, saying it violates the constitution.

Robinson adds: "Congressman knows he is one of the most powerful members of Congress and has immediate access to President Obama, world leaders, celebrities and anyone he chooses. But congressman has never forgotten his roots."

Conyers was a UAW 900 member when he worked at the Lincoln Motor Company after high school. That established his lifelong advocacy for workers and the UAW.

"Congressman John Conyers is at his happiest when he is working with grassroots activists to move a social justice agenda," Robinson says. "He hits his comfort zone in strategy meetings with union, democratic, civil rights or peace activists. And, of course, he always uses the opportunity to educate folks about Miles Davis and John Coltrane as a way to connect with people."

Helping people fuels him to work long days.

"He's actually stopped his car and picked up a homeless person-not one time but as part of who he is," recalls Watson. "Once he and I, with other staff, were riding to an event where he was the keynote speaker. He said, 'Watson, look at that poor woman standing on Linwood and Davison. Let's pick her up.' I said, 'Sir, we've got this event.' But he answered, 'Let's pick her up.' We did, and he asked her, 'Have you eaten, dear?' We went to a restaurant, and he said, 'Let's find a place for her to go, and maybe she wants to come to the speech I'm making tonight.' I've been around many public servants, but it's rare that you see that level of humility."

Political consultant Greg Bowens adds, "His district has been changed, presidents have come and gone, but John Conyers remains, because when he walks up to you at a restaurant, at church at a gas station or on the street and says 'hello,' you feel like you are with somebody that really cares."

Now, tributes are also being planned for Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, says his brother Nathan.

"I'm very glad that folk are recognizing him while he is able to recognize the recognition," Anthony says. "I'm pleased to add my voice to a chorus of those who want to sing a song of praise for John Conyers."

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