Among the longest-serving members of the United States Congress, John Conyers (born 1929) has remained a most productive lawmaker in terms of legislation introduced and passed.
He was one of just a few members of the House of Representatives whose career stretched back to the civil rights era of the 1960s, and many of the key political advances of those years either bore his name as sponsor or cosponsor. Conyers had a curious spirit that led him into areas beyond civil rights, however, and he worked over his long career on issues ranging from alcohol warning labels to the intellectual property rights of musicians in a changing technological world. As American politics swung to the right with the election of President George W. Bush, in 2000, Conyers continued to raise his voice in support of liberal causes and of his urban constituency.
Father Was Union Activist
A lifelong resident of Detroit, Michigan, Conyers was born on May 16, 1929. His father was a Georgia-born laborer who dropped out of high school and came to Detroit to work at a Chrysler auto plant; when he realized that black auto painters were being paid less than their white counterparts, he made a personal protest to company president Walter P. Chrysler. The elder Conyers' union organizing activities cost him jobs, but he eventually rose to a high position within the United Auto Workers union. John Conyers Jr. was his oldest son; another son, Nathan, went on to open one of Detroit's and the country's first African-American-owned auto dealerships.
The younger Conyers grew up in culturally rich Northwest Detroit, and the passion of his high school years was music. Receiving a letter for playing trumpet in his high school band, he also studied bass, piano, tenor saxophone, and trombone. Several jazz musicians who became national stars were part of Conyers' circle of friends in high school. "Sonny Stitt and Milt Jackson were there," he told Hollie I. West of the Washington Post. "I went to Northwestern High School with Betty Carter. And Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Burrell and I were at Wayne State University together." His favorite performer—and another friend later on—was the path breaking saxophonist John Coltrane. Conyers kept an acoustic bass in one corner of his Washington office as a congressional representative, and in the 1970s he even hosted a jazz program on Washington radio station WPFW.
The 1943 Detroit race riots, in which blacks were pulled off streetcars and attacked by white mobs, began to awaken Conyers' political consciousness, but music and school came first for a long time. Conyers breezed through high school, often skipping classes to play pool but still graduating in 1954. There was no money for college, so he relied on his father's influence to get a job as a spot-welder at a Lincoln auto plant. He became the director of his United Auto Workers local unit. Hungry for further education, he took night classes covering levels of chemistry and physics he had not reached in high school. He went on to take more night classes connected with Detroit's Wayne State University and finally enrolled there on a union-backed scholarship in the late 1940s, taking courses in civil engineering.
As the U.S. moved toward war in Korea, Conyers enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1950. Spending part of his officer training program at Fort Belleville in Virginia, he went to Washington to watch Congress in action and, according to Jessica Lee of USA Today, thought to himself, "I could do that!" Reaching the rank of second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, Conyers was sent to Korea and saw combat, winning several military honors.
Started in Politics as Precinct Delegate
Veterans' benefits allowed Conyers to continue his education after his army discharge, and he returned to Wayne State in 1954, switching from engineering to pre-law. He joined Detroit's Young Democratic Club and ran for the post of precinct convention delegate, inaugurating his winning political ways with a narrow victory over a rival. He graduated from Wayne State in 1957 and finished a law degree at the same school the following year, passing the bar exam and co-founding the law firm of Conyers, Bell, and Townsend soon after that.
An accident of geography helped rekindle Conyers' political ambitions: his law office was in the same building as that of veteran Michigan U.S. Representative John Dingell, who as of 2005 was the only lawmaker with more seniority than Conyers. The arrangement was beneficial from a business standpoint, as people involved in landlord-tenant disputes filtered into Conyers' office. Conyers took the chance to broaden his circle of political contacts, working in Dingell's office from 1959 to 1961 and snaring a political appointment from Michigan governor John Swainson as a state workmen's compensation referee. In 1963 Conyers served on the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group spearheaded by President John F. Kennedy. He was active as a lawyer in the civil rights movement in the southern states and often represented clients in voter registration cases.
The Michigan government post lasted from 1961 until 1964, at which time Conyers resigned and declared his candidacy for a northside Detroit U.S. House seat. He defeated future Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin by 44 votes in the Democratic primary but was never seriously challenged again in a House election, even though the boundaries of his district were changed several times and extended into Detroit's predominantly white suburbs. He was elected to represent Michigan's First Congressional District; later redistricting renumbered it as the 14th.
It did not take Conyers long to make his mark legislatively. He signed on as a cosponsor of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, and he backed the liberal social legislation, including the establishment of the Medicare program, championed by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1967, Conyers took the lead in resisting a bill backed by southern conservatives that would have delayed legislative redistricting according to the principle of one person, one vote. After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Conyers introduced a bill that would designate King's birthday as a national holiday. In 1983, he saw the measure become law.
Made Nixon "Enemies" List
In 1969 Conyers became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and was for many years its senior figure. A member of the House Judiciary Committee since his first year in Congress, he participated in the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1974. He had earned the 13th spot on Nixon's notorious "enemies list" of political opponents, with a notation that read (according to USA Today's Jessica Lee), "Coming on fast. Emerging as a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman. Has known weakness for white females." Conyers' durable marriage to the former Monica Esters, who was African-American, produced two children, John III and Carl Edward.
Identified with social and racial justice issues for the bulk of his career, Conyers has also become involved with various other kinds of legislation. He introduced and worked to bring forward a bill requiring health warning labels on the packaging of alcoholic beverages; the bill became law in 1988. Conyers was one of the first lawmakers to urge a systematic study of the differing treatment blacks and whites received at the hands of police, and the U.S. Department of Justice launched a major national investigation of the issue partly in response to his concerns. Conyers introduced or worked on major legislation dealing with hate crimes, voter registration, and violence against women. On a lighter note, he sponsored legislation that designated a National Tap Dancing Day. "When you ask people about my legislative agenda, it's all over the place," he told Lee. Conyers continued to rack up huge majorities in his congressional races but lost in two runs for mayor of Detroit. In the 1980s he was a prominent opponent of President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense space-based weapons initiative, commonly known as Star Wars.
In 1998 Conyers participated in his second impeachment proceeding as the House Judiciary Committee took up charges that President Bill Clinton had lied about his involvement with intern Monica Lewinsky. Though he often wrangled with prosecutor Kenneth Starr, Conyers maintained cordial relationships with Republican House members despite the bitterly partisan atmosphere. Conyers, the senior Democrat on the committee, was the de facto leader of Clinton's defense in the House against impeachment charges.
In 2000 Conyers lent his voice to a growing effort by some African-American leaders to raise the issue of reparations that could be paid or otherwise given to African Americans as compensation for the forced expropriation of their labor during the era of slavery and beyond. In an Ebony essay laying out the case for reparations, Conyers stressed that the movement was "not coming forward in an accusatory tone toward any citizens or their ancestors," but that "we simply think that Congress should take a look at the lingering effects of slavery so that we may get a deeper appreciation of them and reach some consensus about what the solutions may be. The issue of reparations is not something beyond our understanding," Conyers wrote. "It's a pretty fundamental issue if you look at it. I'm saying it's time we did."
Gained Watchdog Reputation
Although he occasionally ran into trouble with House investigators himself—his House checking account was frequently overdrawn, and allegations surfaced in 2003 that some of his staffers had engaged in prohibited political activities—Conyers had a reputation for keeping a close eye on the activities of his Republican adversaries. That tendency came to the fore with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, the authorization for which Conyers voted against. Conyers questioned the stated rationale for the war and added his name as plaintiff to a lawsuit contending the war was unconstitutional because it had not been declared by Congress.
In 2005 he gathered 500,000 signatures on an online petition asking President George W. Bush to address the so-called Downing Street memo, a British government document that appeared to suggest that the Bush administration had settled on war with Iraq regardless of the outcome of diplomatic initiatives. "If these disclosures are true," Conyers said at a House committee meeting (as quoted by Nicole Saunders of Essence), "then brave Americans and innocent Iraqis would have lost their lives for a lie."
In 2005 Conyers and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones introduced the Voting Opportunity and Technology Enhancement and Rights (VOTER) Act, designed to address voting problems that plagued both the 2002 and 2004 elections, and in the eyes of many observers had an unfair impact on African Americans who were attempting to vote. Conyers also worked on measures to help the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti and supported a variety of measures designed to insure that musicians could maintain copyright to their works. Clearly the dean of African-American politicians had lost none of his energy as he reached senior citizen status.
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May 16, 1929
Congressman John Conyers Jr. was born in Detroit to John and Lucille Conyers. He graduated from Wayne State University (B.A., 1957) and Wayne State Law School (J.D., 1958). From December 1958 to May 1961 he served as a legislative assistant to Michigan representative John D. Dingell. During these years, he was also a senior partner in the law firm of Conyers, Bell & Townsend. In October 1961 Conyers was appointed by Gov. John B. Swainson to be a referee for the Workman's Compensation Department. When redistricting created a second black-majority congressional district in Detroit in 1964, Conyers entered the race. Running on a platform of "Equality, Jobs, and Peace," he won his first election by a mere 108 votes and became the second black to serve as congress representative from Michigan (he followed Democrat Charles C. Diggs Jr. from the Thirteenth District, who had been elected in 1954). In subsequent years, Conyers gained reelection by ever increasing margins, winning his fifteenth term, in 1992, with 84 percent of the vote.
In his long tenure as representative of Michigan's First District, and as a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Conyers has worked to promote social welfare and civil rights causes. Soon after his arrival in Washington, he supported President Lyndon Johnson's Medicare program and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Just four days after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Conyers submitted a bill to create a national holiday on the birthday of the slain civil rights leader. Getting federal approval for the holiday proved to be an arduous task; fifteen years passed before President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law on November 22, 1983. In the interim, Conyers had convinced a number of mayors and governors throughout the country to declare January 15 a local or state holiday.
While Conyers has advocated independent black political movements, he has avoided aligning himself with black separatists. At the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana, in March 1972, Conyers was critical of those who advocated forming an independent black political party, saying, "I don't think it is feasible to go outside the two-party system. I don't know how many of us blacks could be elected without white support."
During the 1980s Conyers was often an opponent of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. He spoke out against Bush's efforts to keep Haitian refugees from entering the United States in 1992 and opposed the appointment of conservative African American Clar-ence Thomas to the Supreme Court. While a lifelong Democrat, Conyers was also at times critical of President Jimmy Carter, as he was when Carter dismissed UN ambassador Andrew Young. In fact, relations between Carter—who had also failed to support the King holiday bill—and Conyers grew so strained that the congressman launched a "dump Jimmy Carter for President" campaign on the eve of the 1980 primaries.
Conyers has served as chairman of the Government Operations Committee and has also served on the House Small Business Committee and the Speaker's Task Force on Minority Set-Asides. In 1998, as the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Conyers was a vocal opponent of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
In 2002 Conyers was reelected to his nineteenth term in Congress. Conyers has spearheaded an effort to correct the voting system that eliminated thousands of African Americans from the voting lists in 2000 and has worked to improve living conditions in Haiti.
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Updated by publisher 2005