When John Conyers Jr. recalled his election to the US House of Representatives at a critical moment in the civil rights struggle, after mounting an uphill campaign on the “Jobs, Justice, and Peace” message that he would make central to a half-decade of congressional service, he gave credit for the victory to one of his most ardent supporters: Rosa Parks.
After playing an essential role in the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, she had been ostracized and threatened in the Jim Crow South, so she and her husband moved north to Detroit in the late 1950s. There, Parks began working with Conyers, a young lawyer who was active in Detroit and in the South with progressive unions and the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Conyers, who died Sunday at the age of 90, entered a 1964 Democratic primary for an open House seat. He needed help. And Rosa Parks knew where to get it. She urged the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Detroit and support the campaign. Dr. King avoided making political endorsements, but he responded when Parks pleaded, “You’ve got to come to Detroit and embrace Brother Conyers. We need you.”
Years later, Conyers told Parks’s biographer, Jeanne Theoharis, “If it wasn’t for Rosa Parks, I never would have gotten elected.” That was almost certainly true. Conyers won his primary by just 128 votes. Yet the narrowness of the margin did nothing to temper his determination to bring a new and more militant politics to Washington; he arrived in the capital as the ardent advocate. The only African American member of the House Judiciary Committee during the crucial debates about strengthening the Voting Rights Act, Conyers said to the committee in March of 1965:
Congress passed civil rights legislation in 1957, 1960, and 1964, designed to guarantee the right to vote. Yet, millions of Americans are still denied the right to vote by means both blatant and devious. Unless we pass a voting rights bill this year which will quickly and finally secure the right to vote for all Americans regardless of race, I fear the increased feelings of discontent may reach epidemic proportions.
Thoughtful members of Congress listened, as they often did over the ensuing five decades, to the outspoken advocate for economic, social, and racial justice, whose career was epic in historical scope and political significance; it ended abruptly with his 2017 resignation in the face of harassment charges. Following the news of his death, after almost two years out of the limelight, Conyers was remembered as the associate of Dr. King who led the fight to make MLK Day a national holiday, as the Judiciary Committee leader who cofounded the Congressional Black Caucus and joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as an original member of President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” who served on the committee that moved to impeach Nixon, as the early and ardent foe of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War who became one of the sharpest critic of George W. Bush’s Iraq War, and as the champion of the Violence Against Women Act, Medicare for All, abolition of the death penalty, and legislation to study reparations for the descendants of slaves.
“He was a tireless advocate for racial and economic justice for more than 50 years,” declared Representative Barbara Lee, who was one of his closed congressional allies.” As a CBC cofounder, he focused the nation’s attention on inequality and so many overlooked issues.” In Detroit, at a rally on Sunday evening, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders recalled “a very dear friend of mine,” and noted that “long before it was popular, John Conyers understood that health care was a human right.” Representative Rashida Tlaib, before she endorsed Sanders at that rally, hailed “our forever congressman, John Conyers Jr., who transitioned today and joined the ancestors. He never once wavered in fighting for us.”
Tlaib won Michigan’s 13th congressional district seat in a 2018 special election to fill the seat that Conyers resigned from in December 2017, after allegations of sexual harassment sparked an Ethics Committee investigation into complaints made by a number of women. “It was a scandal that was a swift and crushing fall from grace,” recalled his hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press. Democratic leaders in the chamber, including then–minority leader Nancy Pelosi and James Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who had for decades worked with Conyers as a Congressional Black Caucus member, urged him to resign. Conyers denied wrongdoing and wanted to remain while the Ethics Committee investigation went forward. “But,” the Free Press noted, “with allegations swirling not only over the harassment claims but his use of taxpayer funds to pay at least one settlement, he abruptly stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, a position he had held for more than two decades.”
Conyers was in the political wilderness after his resignation. Yet on Sunday there was an outpouring of memories and emotion from those who recalled the civil rights legacy of the activist who once observed, “I’ve been in the civil rights movement, before I was in the political movement.” For many, it was the congressman’s devotion to the movement’s icons that resonated most powerfully. On Twitter Jeanne Theoharis circulated a photo of Conyers and Parks marching decades ago against plant closings in Detroit. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who mounted his 1988 presidential campaign with early and vital support from Conyers, recalled that Conyers “single-handedly fought for a King holiday. He led the groundwork. He is the reason for the Dr. King holiday.”
For those who were not there, it may seem remarkable that the fight for a King holiday was, in fact, a fight with progress thwarted not just by Republicans but also by Southern Democrats. Just four days after Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Conyers proposed legislation to commemorate his legacy with a celebration of the civil rights leader’s birthday. Millions of Americans would eventually sign petitions supporting the proposal, which Conyers and Representative Shirley Chisholm kept submitting throughout the 1970s. Finally, in 1983, Ronald Reagan signed the measure that made MLK Day a reality.
Fifty years after the bill signing, Conyers told The Washington Post that he fought so hard for it because “I felt the civil rights movement was a powerful chapter in American history. King to me is the outstanding international leader of the 20th century without every holding office.”
That is true. But some who held office were also part of that powerful chapter. As Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson recalled Sunday, “One of the first votes John Conyers cast in Congress was for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He fought his entire life to ensure every citizen could vote and have their voice heard.” Benson proposed an appropriate tribute, when she said, “May we all carry that cause forward and continue the fight for a fair, accessible and secure democracy.”