John Conyers Jr., Civil rights icon, outspoken leader, father, husband and the longest serving African American to serve in Congress, whose career ended in 2017 due to sexual harassment allegations, has died. The former Michigan Congressman, who determinedly represented the people of Detroit, died at home in his beloved city; he was 90.
A man with a complicated past, Conyers recent history of sexual misconduct might be the reason his name was last mentioned in headlines, yet the man who fearlessly fought in Congress for over 50 years, was a groundbreaking activist and politician whose passion for justice, the arts and the city of Detroit, will leave an indelible imprint on America’s fabric and history.
“Our Congressman forever, John Conyers, Jr.,” tweeted Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who took Conyers’ seat in the House after winning the election in 2018. “He never once wavered in fighting for jobs, justice and peace. We always knew where he stood on issues of equality and civil rights in the fight for the people. Thank you Congressman Conyers for fighting for us for over 50 years.”
Conyers’ freedom fight was unwavering. He was an avid activist, lauded by greats like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and even served as Rosa Parks’ boss for over 20 years until she retired in 1988. Further, he was instrumental in combatting voter suppression in the Black community. He sponsored voter registration drives and, as an attorney, provided legal support for African American activists during the Civil Rights Movement.
After being elected to Congress, Conyers took the Civil Rights fight to the House, and cosponsored the original Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then in 1968, days after King was assassinated, he introduced a bill to create the Civil Right’s leader’s birthday a federal holiday- years before President Ronald Reagan would sign it into law and the first nationwide celebration in 1986.
“He [single-handedly] fought for a King holiday,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted. “He led the [groundwork.] He is the reason for the [Dr. King] holiday. [He] inspired the Stevie Wonder song.”
As one of only six Black House members, when he was first elected in 1964, Conyers helped found the Congressional Black Caucus. Never shy in his advocacy for Black people, beginning in 1989, Conyers regularly introduced legislation to study the effects of slavery on African Americans and advocated for reparations- a battle he never won, but proudly and fervently fought.
Conyers’ love for the arts will also remain part of his legacy. Although he was a lifelong jazz lover, Conyers’ father, a union organizer for the automotive industry, international representative for the United Auto Workers Union, and the Congressman’s eponym, insisted he not pursue a career in music. While he took John Conyers Sr.’s advice, the Congressman remained a staunch supporter of jazz his entire life.
Conyers sponsored a bill to forgive the $1.6 million tax debt of musician and big-band leader Woody Herman’s estate and he kept a standup bass in his Washington office, according to the Associated Press.
In addition, he introduced HR-57 in 1987, which designated jazz as a national treasure.
Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation co-founder Herbert Scott took to social media to remember the Congressional jazz champion.
“Thank you for all your service from co-founding the Congressional Black Caucus, helping establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday, introducing HR-57 Bill designating Jazz a national treasure and for helping to revamp the Congressional Jazz Caucus,” Scott wrote on Facebook.
Conyers will also be remembered for being outspoken against many presidents. He was present for the impeachment proceedings of both Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. He famously said during Clinton’s proceedings, “Impeachment was designed to rid this nation of traitors and tyrants, not attempts to cover up an extramarital affair.”
Forever focused on the Black fight, in 2004, he called then-President George W. Bush, “an absolute disaster for the African American community.”
Even before a life in politics, the Wayne State University undergraduate and law school alum was a leader and fighter. He served in the National Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which led him to supervising repairs of military aircrafts during the Korean War.
His political career first began as a legislative assistant to former Rep. John Dingell also a Michigan Democrat, from 1958-1961. When Dingell retired at 88 in 2014, he was Congress’ longest-serving member, thus passing the title to Conyers until his resignation in 2017.
At the time of his resignation, Conyers was the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.
Despite all of his groundbreaking work, Conyers’ had a checkered past that ultimately led to his 2017 resignation from Congress.
From 2003-2006 the House Ethics Committee investigated allegations that Conyers’ staff worked on political campaigns and was directed to babysit his children and run his personal errands.
In 2009 Conyers’ wife, former Detroit Council woman Monica Conyers, pleaded guilty to bribery and spent a little over two years in prison.
Then, amid the rise of the Me Too Movement, Conyers was the first politician to step down from office due to sexual misconduct allegations. One of Conyers’ former employees said she was allegedly fired for turning down sexual advances from the Congressman, and others claimed they witnessed him inappropriately interacting with other women staffers.
Conyers denied the allegations and cited health reasons as the cause for his resignation in 2017. “My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now,” Conyers told a Detroit radio station, while at a hospital where he had been taken after complaining of lightheadedness in December 2017. “This, too, shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children.”
The Detroit native died in his sleep on Oct. 27, just ten days after the passing of celebrated Black Congressman Elijah Cummings, leaving as legacy two sons, John Conyers III and Carl Edward Conyers. After initially filing for divorce in 2015, Monica Conyers remained married to the former Congressman until his passing.
“My husband was a fighter; when your back was up against a wall, he was right there with you,” Conyers’ widow, 53, said in a statement. “Not just for me, but for everyone.”