Colleagues say Conyers leaves legacy as civil rights champion

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Colleagues of former congressman and civil rights leader John Conyers Jr. reacted to his death Sunday in Detroit at the age of 90, saying the fights he fought will be remembered for generations.

Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers spoke about health care at a town hall meeting in Detroit in 2017.

“From being in Selma, Alabama, on Freedom Day during the Civil Rights Movement — to co-founding the Congressional Black Caucus, chairing the House Judiciary Committee and becoming Dean of the House of Representatives — Congressman Conyers dedicated his life to fighting for civil rights,” said U.S. Sen.Gary Peters, a Bloomfield Township Democrat.

“While serving in Congress with him, I saw firsthand his dedication and passion for his beloved city of Detroit and the congressional district he represented.

Conyers served in the U.S. House of Representatives from January 1965, in the Civil Rights era, to 2017, just after the completion of the second term of the first African American president, Barack Obama.

"Congressman John Conyers spent his entire life working for the people of Michigan," U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said. "From serving in our armed forces, to leading the fight for civil rights and representing Detroit in Congress for more than 50 years, John was consistently at the forefront of the critical issues impacting families.

"Throughout his lifetime of service, he never lost sight of the people he represented," said Stabenow, D-Lansing.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, recalled Conyers's service with her late husband, John.

“John Conyers was a civil rights champion who served Michigan and the people of Detroit for decades,” Dingell said. "He began his career working for John Dingell before running for Congress himself and they both believed in justice and equality for all.

“John Conyers spent his life championing those causes,” Dingell said. “The fights John Conyers fought will be remembered for generations. I am deeply saddened by his passing. May God bring his family comfort during this difficult time."

Rep. John Conyers talks to reporters during a press conference in Washington in 1977. Conyers called the briefing to announce a national day of protest in the Alan Bakke case. The case, formally Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, ruling in which, on June 28, 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court declared affirmative action constitutional but invalidated the use of racial quotas.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said, "I am more than saddened by the loss of such a dear friend, colleague and political pioneer. John Conyers Jr. spent a lifetime in public service, leading the charge on civil rights, social justice and equality for people of color in America. His life and legacy will continue to impact many generations to come."

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee recalled that Conyers became the longest serving African American in Congress, and was the dean of the House, as the longest serving member, succeeding John Dingell.

“Throughout his life, John Conyers helped to advance many important causes, including expanding voting rights and equal rights for all Americans,” said Kildee, D-Flint Township, recalling Conyers' 50 years of service to Detroiters.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans recalled the late congressman’s activism.

"With heavy hearts we mourn the loss of a civil rights champion who unapologetically stood up for what he believed was right,” Evans said. “The fight for equality and civil rights in this country is never ending, and few fought as hard or as successfully as Congressman John Conyers.

“We owe much of the progress made in the modern civil rights movement to Congressman Conyers.

“He left an indelible mark on Detroit and this country, and his leadership will not be forgotten,” he said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recalled commemorating the 50th anniversary of civil unrest in Detroit in July 1967, with Conyers.

“One of my most special memories was spending time with him at Gordon Park on 12th Street and Clairmount on the 50th anniversary of the violence of 1967 as he recounted the story of his courageous efforts to calm the angry crowds,” Duggan said.

A prominent news photograph from the bloody disturbances shows Conyers standing in the back of a flatbed pickup, bullhorn to mouth, urging peace.

“He has fought for a better Detroit for more than half a century,” Duggan said.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Conyers worked to secure the right to vote.

“One of the first votes John Conyers cast in Congress was for the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” Benson said. “He fought his entire life to ensure every citizen could vote & have their voice heard.

“May we all carry that cause forward and continue the fight for a fair, accessible and secure democracy.”

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Conyers was a stalwart.

"From being summoned to his congressional offices in Detroit and Washington at a moment’s notice, to always taking my meeting requests, to conversing with him in the hallways where our children went to school, Congressman John Conyers was a true Detroit icon and consummate civil servant," Worthy said. "He never hesitated or ignored calls for help, solicitations for advice, or pleas for resources over the years. I will always remember him for how he lived, worked, helped and preserved.”

Wayne County Commission Chair Alisha Bell said Conyers' work is his legacy.

"Our nation has lost a civil rights champion who dedicated his life (to) doing the work of the people,” Bell said. “He fought the fight in Washington for more than 50 years, and his work and achievements will impact us profoundly for decades to come.

"John Conyers Jr. was truly an inspiration to my decision to go into politics and government.

In a brief appearance on WXYZ-TV (Channel 7 Detroit), Conyers' wife, Monica, said he read newspapers and had breakfast on Sunday, as was his routine.

"At some point, I'm going to tell everyone who it is that he wanted to be president," said the former Detroit city councilwoman. "And, it's not going to be who everyone thinks.

The Michigan Democratic Party released a statement, on behalf of the chairwoman Lavora Barnes.

“John Conyers lived to serve Detroit, his community and his country, and in doing so, helped to build a better world around him,” the party said.

“His commitment to social justice, economic opportunity, and the empowerment of his people created immediate change for the better and opened the doors of progress for generations to come.

"He both witnessed and made history and set the stage for others to do the same.

“Korean War veteran, first Black Democratic leader on the House Judiciary Committee, co-sponsor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Act, co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and longest-serving African American member of Congress — he will be missed by more people than he could have ever possibly known, but John Conyers’ work will continue through our hands, and his legacy will live on forever.”

Rev.  Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP, said Conyers' death marks a moment in history.

"For many, it is the passing of an illustrious and defining political era," Anthony said. "Today, we have lost a giant who helped bend the inevitable arc towards justice for all.

"John Conyers was more than just a congressman. He was the 'Go-to Guy.' Anyone who wanted to move issues dealing with labor, human rights, South African apartheid, civil rights, women’s rights — even before the Me Too movement — federal judges on the bench or presidents in a pinch would see John Conyers.

"Whether it was fighting for Haitian refugees, fair housing, reform in our criminal justice system or national healthcare, John Conyers was always out front," Anthony said.

"He was not afraid to stand alone in defense or in advocacy of policy and programs that uplifted the lives of people. His office in Washington was a repository for assemblies of common people, strategy sessions for political allies, a comfort zone for those needing to refuel their political tanks and a rhythmic getaway for those jazz connoisseurs who just wanted to chill."

Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr., the former Michigan State and NBA star and businessman, tweeted about Conyers.

"You never want to hear about the passing of a friend," Johnson said "John Conyers Jr. was a fearless civil rights leader, Korean War veteran, and meant a lot to the state of Michigan.

"He worked passionately to secure justice against racial and economic discrimination. We can thank Mr. Conyers for making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and founding the Congressional Black Caucus."