91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

John Conyers, Detroiter and former dean of House of Representatives, dead at 90

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) testifies at a hearing in 2009.
Rep. John Conyers office

Former Democratic Michigan Congressman John Conyers has died. The one-time dean of the House of Representatives was 90 years old.

Conyers first ran for Congress in 1964 – at a time when the civil rights movement was really coalescing in the south around the work of Martin Luther King.

“I had been going down there [to the south],” Conyers told Michigan Radio in 2007. “I was at the home of Martin, I got to meet his family and the children – I met Rosa Parks – so all of this was shaping my outlook, and I began to realize that this was a phenomenal era that we were living in, and I was anxious to connect up with it.”

Conyers won the 1964 election on a platform of “jobs, justice and peace.” And when he got to Washington, he had a bold request for House Speaker John McCormack, “who I asked to be placed on the Committee of the Judiciary, and asked to be the first African American to serve on that committee.”

A tireless advocate

“Ideally, people will remember the Conyers of the 1950s and ‘60s,” said Stephen Henderson, host of Detroit Today on WDET, and American Black Journal on Detroit Public TV.

Henderson said Conyers was a dynamo in those early days, “someone who really pushed the envelope in terms of insisting that equality mattered, and it needed to matter in the law and it needed to matter in practice.”

Henderson said growing up, he remembered Conyers as a constant figure on the city’s political scene: energetic, sometimes combative, always thoughtful.

“Unfortunately lots of people will just remember more recent times, where he has slowed significantly from where he was. And because of his association with his wife and some other things, there’s this whiff of scandal," Henderson said.

Departure from Congress

Conyers’ wife was Monica Conyers – a former Detroit city councilwoman who served time in prison for bribery.

John Conyers was never linked to that scandal. But in 2017, at the height of the #metoo movement, John Conyers was pressured to resign over sexual harassment claims.

Over 25 terms in Congress, an incomplete list of Conyers’ accomplishments includes getting the Martin Luther King holiday on the calendar, criminal sentencing reform, and overseeing impeachment proceedings of two presidents.

A champion for reparations

But there were a couple items of unfinished business: single-payer health care, and reparations for slavery.

“John Conyers’ legacy is that he unequivocally is the person who can be recognized as being the spur, the spark of the reparations movement,” said Nkechi Taifa, a founder of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.

HR 40 – introduced by Conyers in a Capitol Building built by enslaved people – called for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects.

Conyers sponsored it each and every Legislative session from 1989 to 2017. The “40” in HR 40 is a call back to the unfulfilled promise this country made to freed slaves: That after the Civil War, they would get 40 acres and a mule.

The bill never got anywhere while Conyers was in office. But Taifa said it sparked a conversation that is gaining momentum: “He has taken it upon himself to ensure that this issue did not go away.”

And it hasn’t.

The first session after his departure from Congress, in 2019, HR 40 was introduced for the 21st time, with a new sponsor.

Conyers knew how to play the long game. And he helped shape some of the most lasting and important conversations about what America is, and can be.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Radio’s Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.