We wouldn’t have a Martin Luther King, Jr., national holiday if it weren’t for a congress member named John Conyers. Mr. Conyers was the longest-serving Black congressman at the time he died, though he had retired from public office by then. He was ninety years old when he died in 2019. Many people mourned his passing.
Mr. Conyers was, in fact, one of the longest-serving members of Congress altogether—Black or White. An unabashed liberal, he was particularly dogged on civil rights issues and was revered for this stance both in Washington and in his home of Detroit.
Mr. Conyers was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2005. He was recognized for his untiring efforts in the fight to get civil rights for his fellow African Americans and his work to get laws passed in support of that cause.
He was known as the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that he had helped to found. There were only five other Black members of the House of Representatives at the time he helped get the Congressional Black Caucus started. Since then, their numbers have grown. As of this writing there are over fifty members.
His first win in Congress was what is often called a “squeaker”—that is, a very narrow win. He just “squeaked by.” That was in 1964, and he won his seat in the House of Representatives by the narrowest of margins—108 votes. But he held on to his seat through successive elections, and his win margins grew larger. Voters in his home district of Detroit grew to love him and the way he fought for the causes they cared about
Mr. Conyers was outspoken. His loyalty was to the truth, at least as he saw it, not to the party he belonged to. He was a Democrat, but he wasn’t afraid to criticize fellow Democrats, all the way up to the president of the U.S.A. When Jimmy Carter, who was a member of the Democratic party like Mr. Conyers, was the country’s president, Mr. Conyers expressed publicly his very low opinion of this fellow Democrat. He called President Carter “a hopeless, demented, honest, well-intentioned nerd, who will never get past his first administration.”
History proved Mr. Conyers right about one thing, at least: Mr. Carter served only one term as president. He was also unquestionably honest and well intentioned. Whether Mr. Carter deserved being called “hopeless” and “demented,” however, is highly questionable. But whether you agree with Mr. Conyers’s evaluation of Mr. Carter or not, you have to admire his willingness to “call them as he saw them,” without undue party loyalty.
And of course he took on Republicans as well. He said President George W. Bush “has been an absolute disaster for the African American community.” He pulled no punches in support of his fellow Blacks.
It took him fifteen years to get the bill passed that would make Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, but Mr. Conyers kept at it, re-introducing the bill, pushing for the bill, arguing with his fellow Congress members, until at last he got what he wanted.
Although the celebration, like any number of other national holidays, is actually observed on the Monday nearest MLK’s birthday and not on the actual date, it does honor Dr. King—and it is a national holiday. And we have John Conyers to thank.
Mr. Conyers was less successful with a bill he first introduced in 1989 and continued pushing throughout his years in Congress. This was a bill that required a study of the harm caused by slavery and the possibility of a type of payment for people descended from slaves. That sort of payment, intended to make up for harm caused in the past, is known as “reparations.” Mr. Conyers never got his bill turned into a law, but there are still, as of this writing, people pushing to get a reparations law passed. Those who are working toward this effort have John Conyers to thank for his tireless work in keeping people motivated on behalf of the cause.
Mr. Conyers faced accusations late in his career that he had made improper advances toward female members of his staff. He denied these stories, but eventually he retired from the seat in Congress that he had held for so long. He gave health issues as the reason, however, rather than the controversy over the accusations. Whatever the truth of the matter was, it is certainly true that he was facing health challenges.
The African American community nearly lost one of its greats to the music world early in the future congressman’s life. Mr. Conyers was a great fan of jazz music and, when he was a boy, he wanted to be a musician. But his father discouraged that, and John Conyers went to law school instead, winding up in government. He served in Congress from 1965 to 2017—more than fifty years. He was serving his twenty-sixth term when he retired. What an amazing record!
But on October 27, 2019, the African American community lost one of its greats permanently, with Mr. Conyers’s passing.