John Conyers: The longest-serving black congressman with sex scandals, who pushed for MLK’s birthday as a public holiday

Mohammed Awal October 28, 2019
Photo credit: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

John Conyers Jr., the longest-serving African-American in Congress died on Sunday, October 27. He was 90.

He died at home.

“… The city of Detroit, the United States and the world [had] lost a fearless civil rights leader and hero,” the family said in a statement.

“Conyers was a devoted father and husband and his world revolved around securing justice against racial and economic discrimination… his legacy and advocacy for human rights will live on forever,” the statement added.

The journey to history 

Born in 1929, in Detroit, Michigan, Conyers earned his B.A. degree in 1957, and his J.D. degree in 1958, from Wayne State University. He served a year in Korea as an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before beginning his career as a private attorney.

Conyers’ political career began in 1958 as an aide to Congressman John Dingell, serving him until 1961. 

In 1965, Conyers would make history by being elected to the House of Representatives on the platform of jobs, justice, and peace, representing parts of Detroit.

Conyers was famous for his liberal stance on civil rights and liberties. His list of legislative successes “is long and impressive”. Some of the bills Conyers authored and sponsored include—the Martin Luther King Holiday Act, the Alcohol Warning Label Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Hate Crime Statistics Act.

The first African American Democratic leader on the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers attached crucial civil rights measures to the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, including the Racial Justice Act and the Police Accountability Act. 

He also generated the Justice Department’s national study on police brutality, and he conducted hearings in several cities on police violence, racially motivated violence, sentencing, white-collar crime, and other criminal justice matters.

One of Conyers’ crowning achievements was 36 years ago when President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating a national holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Celebrated the third Monday in January, the holiday was an example of political persistence

The legislation was first introduced four days after King was assassinated in April 1968, but it took 15 years of memorable fight and behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get the measure through both chambers of Congress. 

Storied career marred 

Conyers was one of only six elected black members of the House in1964. He served until 2017 when he resigned in December amid allegations of sexual harassment.

One of the accusers, Elisa Grubbs, said in a sworn legal statement that Conyers slid his hand up her skirt as the two sat in church together. Another, his former deputy chief of staff, Deanna Maher, came forward to say she had rejected him when he had asked her to his hotel room to have sex in 1997, and that he had subsequently groped her several times.

Conyers faced investigations from the House Ethics Committee. Top Democrat Nancy Pelosi and her then-Republican counterpart, House Speaker Paul Ryan, both called on Conyers to step aside.

Conyers denied the allegations, saying they were “not accurate”. But he eventually stepped down citing health reasons.

“My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now,” Conyers told a Detroit radio station from a hospital where he’d been taken after complaining of lightheadedness in December 2017. 

“This, too, shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children.”

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: October 28, 2019


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