Detroiters pay respects to late Congressman John Conyers

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Monica Conyers sat across from her husband's polished brown casket Saturday, saying "we share him with the world."

White, red and yellow flowers surrounded U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. as he lay in state of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History graced by an American flag and the congressional seal.

Conyers, a Korean War veteran who was the longest-serving African American member of Congress in U.S. history, died Sunday at age 90.

Monica Conyers wipes a tear during the visitation ceremony for her husband, former congressman John Conyers Jr., in Detroit.

Hundreds arrived Saturday morning to pay their respects to the man who spent 53 years in the U.S. House and built a reputation as a champion for civil and human rights.

"Everyone here is telling me different stories of how my husband helped them," Monica Conyers said. "One who was in the military, another who had issues with the law, one lady who wanted to get her child back from another country. Just very touching to get to hear all the stories from the actual people he helped."

She said it was befitting to have an open service for the public to pay their respects.

"We share him with the world. He's their brother, dad, uncle ... ever since I've known him, I've had to share him. So I figure, I have to share him today too," she said.

The Detroit Democrat was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969, which promotes the legislative concerns of black and minority communities.

Michigan Masons and members of the United Supreme Council entered the Wright Museum and sang “Till We Meet Again” as they circled around his casket. They laid red roses in his casket and said farewell to their sincere brother who was "called from labor to lord and will not easily be replaced."

Dwight Tarrance Jr. of Grand Lodge of Michigan was among those that saluted Conyers and said his Famabiff #33 brother encouraged others to strive for greatness. 

"His stature is the same of Martin Luther King Jr. and they worked hand-in-hand with Conyers creation of MLK Day," said Tarrance, 40, from Detroit. "He was strong on the belief that anyone can strive for greatness and fight for a cause like civil rights ... all aside from being a congressman and serving our country."

Kenneth Carter, of the Wolverine Consistory # 6 Valley of Detroit,  speaks of former Congressman John Conyer Jr. and places a rose in the casket during a visitation ceremony held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit on Saturday, November 2, 2019. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Conyers was the third-longest-serving House member in U.S. history and the first African American to hold the title of dean, or member with the longest continuous service — a mantle he took on in 2015 after the retirement of Michigan's John Dingell Jr.

His wife recalled some of his work she found most impactful including the Violence Against Women Act, Voter Registration Act, his work for the civil rights movement and especially, his work to aid minorities.

"I can't pinpoint to one thing... I think a lot of people don't think about the minority set-asides because it was always big contractors getting all the business and the little companies never getting any. He put a 20% set aside for minority companies... to give them a fair chance," she said. "He was glued to the television about (President) Donald Trump and the impeachment, but (he) always said it was a little too soon."

While she misses waking up and making him breakfast, Saturday was especially difficult as it was their youngest son's birthday.

"His most profound legacy is his sons," she said. "I'm so happy that we got to spend the last two years with him not working. It's a lot for them to lose their dad and for me to lose my husband."

► More: John Conyers Jr. full obituary

More: Conyers funeral set for Monday in Detroit; Bill Clinton to attend

Visitation for former Congressman John Conyers Jr. begins at the Charles H. Wright Museum on Saturday, November 2, 2019.

Visitors can also pay their respects from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

His funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Monday at the Greater Grace Temple, 23500 W. Seven Mile Road, in Detroit, and condolences can be sent to Swanson's Funeral Home, 14751 W. McNichols Road in Detroit.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks contributions be made in the representative's name to Wayne State University Law School.

"He served us for a number of years and I can not remember ever not voting for him," said Rita Britton, a lifelong Detroiter. "When my parents got married and purchased a home, he was their lawyer and signed the deed. He worked his entire life and I respect his struggle."

Viola Schwartz and her husband, Ronald, traveled from Waterford to pay their respects to the late congressman. 

"I never met him but always listened to him on the radio and TV to hear his wise words," said Schwartz, 66. "He did so much for the civil rights moment, as much as Rosa Parks, and he loved Detroit. That’s why we had to come to pay our respects and see the last of him."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_