John Conyers, 1929–2019
The trailblazing congressman who fell from glory
Rep. John Conyers technically represented Detroit, but he became known to many as the congressman-at-large for black America. When the Democrat was first elected in 1964, he was one of just six African-American members of the House of Representatives. Conyers quickly emerged as a leading voice for the black community on Capitol Hill and an unabashed champion of progressive causes such as criminal justice reform and national health insurance. He co-sponsored the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and led the fight to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday. In 1971, he co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus, which has since grown from 13 to 55 members. But his 52-year career came to an unceremonious end in 2017 amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Conyers resigned as the sixth-longest-serving member in congressional history.
He was born in Detroit to a father who was an automotive union organizer, said the Associated Press. Conyers Sr. “insisted that his son, a jazz aficionado from an early age, not become a musician.” After high school, Conyers worked as a spot welder in an automobile plant and served with the Army Corps of Engineers in the Korean War. He returned home to earn a law degree from Wayne State University. “His law practice and work in the auto plants in Detroit led him to the office of former U.S. Rep. John Dingell,” said the Detroit Free Press. After working as a legislative aide for three years, Conyers ran for Congress in his own right, winning his seat by just 108 votes. When race riots broke out in his district in 1967, he climbed onto a flatbed truck to personally appeal for calm.
Conyers’ career tells “the history of liberal causes over the last half-century,” said The New York Times. He was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the Iraq War. Conyers pushed to ban handguns and regularly introduced bills to study reparations for slavery. But he became one of the most high-profile men exposed by the burgeoning #MeToo movement. He resigned after BuzzFeed.com revealed that he had used office funds to settle a sexual harassment case with a staffer who accused him of firing her for rejecting his advances. Conyers never admitted any wrongdoing. “My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way,” he said. “This too shall pass.” ■