Superhero, champion, jazz aficionado, true renaissance man — John Conyers was all of that, and the longest-serving Black member of Congress ever, no exaggeration.
Conyers joined his ancestors at his home in Detroit on Oct. 27. He was 90. He was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and his achievements in Congress are legend!
He told me once in an interview that when he and others came up with the idea of the CBC, he went to iconic Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. for advice.
“Why do you want a Black Caucus?” he said Powell asked him.
“To represent Black people,” was his reply.
“But I represent Black people,” Conyers said Powell told him.
When Congress convened in 1969 the CBC was formed as a “Democratic Select Committee.” Two years later, the number of Blacks in Congress had swollen to 13, and on the motion of Rep. Charles Rangel, who defeated Powell in 1970, the group changed its name to the CBC. Ironically, John Conyers never served as CBC chair.
After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, Conyers introduced legislation to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. With each new session of Congress, he reintroduced the bill, again and again, gaining more and more co-sponsors each year.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law. Ironically, when Reagan signed the legislation, Conyers was not at the Rose Garden ceremony because he was not welcome in the Reagan White House. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks quietly worked in Conyers’ Detroit office for 25 years. When she was later presented the Congressional Gold Medal, John Conyers was not even on the dais.
Indeed, Conyers was No. 13 on President Richard Nixon’s fabled 1969 “Enemies List.” Little wonder, then, that in 1973 as the revelations of the president’s involvement in the 1972 Watergate Hotel break-in and subsequent cover-up came to light, Conyers, a member of the prestigious Judiciary Committee, introduced the bill to impeach Nixon. In July 1974, the full committee approved the resolution, which was on its way to adoption by the full House when Nixon resigned in August.
In 1987 — the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Right Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey — Conyers convened a hearing on a resolution he introduced, calling for a posthumous pardon of the Jamaica-born, Black Nationalist hero who built the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), the largest Black organization of its kind in U.S. history. The scholars Conyers assembled offered compelling testimony and evidence that Garvey had been framed and unjustly convicted of mail fraud by the U.S. government.
Beginning in 1989, and until his retirement in 2016, Conyers introduced in every session of Congress, HR 40 — as in 40 acres and a mule — a bill to establish a commission to study the feasibility of reparations for the descendants of America’s enslaved Africans. At a celebration of his 50-year milestone in Congress in 2015, I asked him if he would introduce his reparations bill again every time Congress convened. “Absolutely!” was his reply.
In 1987 both the House and the Senate approved legislation fondly called HR 57. It was authored and pushed through by John Conyers, declaring jazz to be an authentic indigenous American art form — America’s Classical Music. He loved jazz music, he kept a bass violin, which he could play, in his congressional office and for 30 years at the CBC Annual Legislative Conference he sponsored a Jazz forum/discussion and a live performance featuring musicians like the immortal Miles Davis.
John Conyers, former chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is conspicuously one of the most progressive members of Congress. Whether it’s racial justice, health care, economics, the environment, gender issues, he got it right all the time. He is, without a doubt, a hero of mine.