John Conyers, Longest-serving Black Member of Congress in History, Dies

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Congressman John Conyers

By Melissa Nann Burke and Gregg Krupa, The Detroit News

John Conyers Jr., a Korean War veteran who was the longest serving African American member of Congress in U.S. history, died Sunday at age 90, Detroit police have confirmed.

Arnold Reed, a lawyer for Mr. Conyers, was shaken by the news.

“Well, the only thing I can do is confirm his passing,” Reed said Sunday. “It has gotten us all out of sorts here. And I really have to just sit down, for a moment.”

During his 53 years in the U.S. House, Mr. Conyers built a reputation as a champion for civil and human rights.

The Detroit Democrat was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969, which promotes the legislative concerns of Black and minority communities.

His legacy was clouded by allegations that he sexually harassed or mistreated several female staffers — complaints that prompted his resignation in December 2017.

Mr. Conyers denied the claims of misconduct and said at the time of his resignation he hoped his departure would be viewed “in the larger perspective of my record of service.”

Mr. Conyers was the third-longest-serving House member in U.S. history and the first African American to hold the title of dean, or member with the longest continuous service — a mantle he took on in 2015 after the retirement of Michigan’s John Dingell Jr.

“He’s touched so many lives across the country around the world when you talk about human rights and civil rights,” said Jonathan Kinloch, Democratic Party chairman of the 13th Congressional District, who was in middle school when he first started following Mr. Conyers’ career.

“He was a giant then, he’s a giant now, and he will remain a giant into history.”

Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, also hailed his fight for civil rights and liberties.

“John Conyers fought with vigor and empathy for people who were left out and left behind,” Levin said Sunday on Twitter. “My deepest sympathy to the Conyers family who are so much a part of the fabric of Detroit.”

First elected in 1964, Mr. Conyers introduced the first bill to create a federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — an effort that languished for years until President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1983. Mr. Conyers first offered the bill four days after King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

“His impact on our state, whether by spearheading reforms in criminal justice and voting rights in Congress or through his lifetime of civil rights activism, will not be forgotten,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a Sunday statement.

For years, Mr. Conyers held a powerful position as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, to which he was appointed as a freshman lawmaker in 1965.

He sat on the panel in 1974 when it investigated President Richard Nixon and later voted to submit articles of impeachment to the full House (he supported all three articles).

Mr. Conyers went on to chair the Judiciary Committee from 2007-11 and was chairman or ranking Democrat on the powerful House Oversight Committee from 1989 to 2004.

A lawyer by training, Mr. Conyers was considered one of the more liberal members of Congress.

He pushed for a single-payer or government-dominated health care system and long urged a study of reparations for slavery.

His bill, which he introduced in every Congress starting in 1989, would have set up a commission to examine the institution of slavery in the nation and its colonies, and recommend appropriate remedies.

“I’m not giving up,” he said in 2017. “Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is formally addressed, our country’s story will remain marked by this blight.”

Reparations received renewed interest among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, several of whom pledged to sign the bill if they were elected president.

Mr. Conyers also fought to rein in the federal government’s surveillance powers, sought to end racial profiling and to reform mandatory minimum prison sentences to reduce high rates of incarceration for blacks and the poor.

During his legislative career, Mr. Conyers helped spearhead landmark reforms including extensions of the Voting Rights Act, as well as passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and the Hate Crimes Act of 2009.

Mr. Conyers’ successes included pushing for the the Jazz Preservation Act of 1987, the Motor Voter Bill of 1993, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

A mixed legacy

The sexual harassment allegations cast a shadow over Mr. Conyers’ last days in Congress, when both then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on him to step down, with Pelosi calling the allegations “very credible.”

Mr. Conyers “shaped some of the most consequential legislation of the last half century,” Pelosi said at the time.

“No matter how great the legacy, it is no license to harass or discriminate. In fact, it makes it even more disappointing.”

Mr. Conyers maintained his innocence and urged his constituents to recall his full record.

“For Detroiters, I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish by bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in critical grants and federal funding to Southeast Michigan to revitalize our great city, attract rich talent, and return us to prosperity,” Mr. Conyers said in a statement read by a colleague on the House floor in December 2017.

“I vehemently deny any and all allegations of harassment or dishonor, but I recognize that in this present environment, due process will not be afforded to me. I was taught by a great woman, my mother, to honor women.”

Accusations surfaced in November 2017 with news that Mr. Conyers had settled a complaint with former aide Marion Brown in 2015 after she claimed she was dismissed for refusing his sexual advances.

He paid her roughly $27,000 through his congressional office budget but, as part of the settlement, denied her allegations.

Other former staffers, some unnamed, also recounted instances of inappropriate advances and touching by Mr. Conyers, invitations to hotel rooms and disrobing in front of employees.

Brown’s case and similar settlements prompted Congress to reform its own rules governing sexual harassment last year, holding members will now be financially liable for harassment and retaliation settlements and boosting transparency around the process for any settlements paid out as a result of complaints.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, ended up winning Mr. Conyers’ seat after a narrow 2018 primary victory and during a Sunday rally with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont called Mr. Conyers “our forever congressman.” She said Mr. Conyers stood up for civil rights and equality.

“He never once wavered in fighting for us,” Tlaib said.

Sanders told the rally at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School that Mr. Conyers was a champion for civil rights and was responsible for creating a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.

“Long before it was popular, John Conyers understood that health care is a human right,” Sanders said..”

Political career takes off

Mr. Conyers grew up in Detroit the son of a labor leader and attended Northwestern High School.

He served in the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean War before returning to Michigan and graduating from Wayne State University and Law School.

He worked as an aide to John Dingell, D-Dearborn for three years, and as general counsel for three labor locals in Detroit before running at age 35 for an open U.S. House seat in 1964. His platform was “Jobs, Justice and Peace.”

“He began his career working for John Dingell, before running for Congress himself and they both believed in justice and equality for all,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, the Dearborn Democrat who was John’s wife, said in a Sunday statement. “John Conyers spent his life championing those causes. The fights John Conyers fought will be remembered for generations.”

The first employee that Mr. Conyers hired was civil rights hero Rosa Parks. She worked as a secretary and aide to Mr. Conyers for 22 years from 1964 until she retired in 1988.

In his first year in office, Mr. Conyers went to Selma, Alabama, for a voter-registration drive in February 1965, the month before the violent “Bloody Sunday” march.

Civil rights leader King wrote thanking Mr. Conyers for his visit, saying Mr. Conyers’ “very presence there has had an electric effect upon the voteless and beleaguered Negro citizens of this city, county, state and nation.”

King in his letter emphasized the need for federal legislation to “remove remaining barriers to the free exercise of the ballot” by Black citizens.

Later that year, Mr. Conyers co-sponsored the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited discrimination in voting. He received the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Award, presented by King in 1967.

When riots grew in the streets of Detroit on July 23, 1967, after police raided a blind pig — an illegal, after-hours drinking and gambling joint. Mr. Conyers went into the streets and tried to quell the community’s rage, directing it to more “proactive organization,” he said in 2017. He grasped a bullhorn atop a car in the middle of a crowd, urging neighbors and constituents to stop the destruction.

“One of my most special memories was spending time with him at Gordon Park on 12th Street and Clairmount on the 50th anniversary of the violence of 1967 as he recounted the story of his courageous efforts to calm the angry crowds,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a Sunday statement. “He has fought for a better Detroit for more than half a century.”

Mr. Conyers was among the first to make Nixon’s infamous list of political enemies in 1971, on which he was described as “emerging as a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman.”

In 1990, Mr. Conyers married Monica Esters, and the couple had two sons, John III and Carl Edward. After he resigned, the congressman backed son John III for his seat, but Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett threw the son off the Democratic primary ballot for failing to gather enough valid signatures.

Political controversies

Mr. Conyers pulled surprises at time, such as running unsuccessfully for mayor of Detroit in 1989 against legendary incumbent Coleman A. Young and again in 1993 when Young decided to retire.

But the congressman had occasional political problems.

Mr. Conyers got caught up in ethical controversies involving House officials, including when staffers accused him of inappropriately ordering them to work on political campaigns and do personal chores such as babysit, clean his home and tutor his wife and children. House leaders forced him to take corrective actions.

The Ethics Committee also investigated Mr. Conyers for potential misconduct related to salary paid to his former chief of staff, Cynthia Martin, for four months in 2016 when she had no longer performed work for his office.

Problems with his petition signatures almost kept Mr. Conyers off the ballot in 2014. But a federal judge ruled the congressman’s challenge of a state law would likely succeed and ordered him back on the ballot, where he won the primary and received more than 79% of the vote in the general election.

Some Democrats had suggested toward the end of his tenure that Mr. Conyers should step aside to let someone younger take over, but Mr. Conyers said giving up his seat to a freshman would deplete the chamber of his institutional knowledge.

Only two members of Congress have served longer than Mr. Conyers in American history: Dingell, who served from 1955 to 2015, and Jamie Whitten, D-Mississippi, who was in office from 1941 to 1995.

Detroit News Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed

This article originally appeared in the Detroit News.

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