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Detroit — The late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. was praised Monday as a giant for civil and voting rights, a soft-spoken but fierce advocate for Detroit and a "unique figure" in black history.

Former President Bill Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and dozens of congressional and community leaders attended the more than five-hour funeral to laud Conyers, the longest-serving African American congressional member in the nation’s history.

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In his 53 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Conyers became the first black chairman of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees. The longtime Democrat created a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., and various speakers noted how he served as a mentor on public service and politics. 

Conyers, who died Oct. 27 at age 90, was "an incredible thinker politically," said Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, the congressman's main eulogist — “what he did legislatively, what he did politically, what he did in terms of changing the tide for black people is incalculable.”

Issues such as reparations for blacks and the struggle for civil rights were his legacy, Dyson said after the funeral.

“So he leaves a huge gulf,” he said. “Plus he was a progressive in the pure sense. He was willing to compromise to be certain, but he was unstinting in his advocacy for those who were most vulnerable.”

Clinton thanked the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and others who joined him to pay tribute to Conyers, thanking the people of Detroit “for electing him 27 times.”

“When somebody served as long and as well as John did, it’s tempting to list every last bill that he sponsored or co-sponsored or had anything to do with,” Clinton said.

“In a way, that’s a big mistake because it tends to turn history into dry bones. The most important thing is to remember how different the playing field was when he began rather than ended … how many lives were improved by his labors.”

Conyers’ casket sat just below the packed stage, a folded American flag resting on top next to a spray of red flowers. Former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas paid a special tribute.

Among the dignitaries who attended but did not speak were civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia; U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing; and U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, who eventually replaced Conyers after his resignation in December 2017. 

Conyers came to Washington in January 1965, voted for the Voting Rights Act and ended up sponsoring three years later legislation to create Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday in the wake of the civil rights leader's 1968 assassination.

At the time Conyers took office, Clinton said, millions of African Americans still could not exercise the right to vote. 

“When it (The Voting Rights Act) passed, he said it was the most important thing he would ever work on,” the Democratic former president said of Conyers. “He had no way of knowing then, he’d be hanging around in Congress for 54 years.” 

The effects of that bill were immediate, Clinton said. 

“When he did all this there were fewer than 1,000 African Americans in any form of local, state or national office in this whole country,” he said. “Today, there are more than 10,000.”

Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton would never have become president without the Voting Rights Act, Clinton said.

“He fought tooth and nail against every encroachment on the right to vote,” he said, including restoring elements to the Voting Rights Act that were nullified by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. “He kept on going right to the very end.”

Rosa Parks story

Clinton shared a story Monday of Conyers’ reaction to Rosa Parks moving to Detroit. Parks couldn’t make a living at her home in Alabama.

“Even an icon has to eat, buy clothes, have a place to sleep. We often forget that,” Clinton said. “John Conyers, a young congressman, knew that she was in a fix, so he hired her. And she worked for him in his local district for 23 years, until she retired."

Clinton also shared some personal experiences with Conyers, including how Conyers brought jazz great Lionel Hampton to the White House in 1998 to play for Clinton.

“John Conyers’ autobiography might have been subtitled Jazz in the Key of Life,” he said. “He was not perfect and that made all of his achievements all the more important. Remember the circumstance, the action, the impact and make your own music.”

Conyers resigned in December 2017 after several former female staffers accused him of sexual harassment. He denied the claims of misconduct and said at the time of his resignation he hoped his departure would be viewed "in the larger perspective of my record of service."

Motown singer Stevie Wonder hailed Conyers as the catalyst for the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday legislation in 1968 and pushing it through to passage in 1983. It helped inspire Wonder's "Happy Birthday" song in tribute to King.

"We cannot forget the life of John Conyers, and getting people registered to vote is the way to honor him," said Wonder, who later played his 1969 hit "My Cherie Amour" in honor of the congressman.

Conyers' wife Monica told the audience toward the end of the funeral “don’t feel sad for us.”

“We feel sad for ya’ll," said Monica, the 55-year-old former Detroit City Council president. "You don’t have anyone to fight for you. Can you call somebody, really call somebody who is going to pick up the phone and stop it (a problem) in an instant.”

She warned people to be mindful of who they elect and “allow in your circle.”

'Losing too many giants'

The funeral followed a weekend of remembrances for the man who became the dean of the U.S. House of Representatives as he lay in state at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Among those at the service were Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Detroit Councilman Gabe Leland and former Detroit city councilwoman, the Rev. JoAnn Watson.

Lawmakers and colleagues of Conyers reflected on the legacy of the civil rights champion who loved Detroit. 

Conyers served with 10 presidents and continued to be successful even in his final years, said former House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, who was the only Republican to speak at the event.

Goodlatte said he worked with Conyers against government surveillance, on criminal justice reform and policing strategy.

“He didn’t just care about people here in Detroit or elsewhere in the United States, he cared about people all across the globe,” Goodlatte said, adding that the congressman was a gentleman with strong convictions but who was always polite and soft spoken.

Conyers was a giant who stood amid turmoil and "kept on standing," said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

Conyers introduced a bill for a committee to study reparations proposals in 1989, one of the “continuously unpopular things” he did it to “give a voice to the silenced and he gave them hope," Jackson Lee said as the crowd rose to its feet and applauded.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, hailed Conyers as a mentor who showed that "a progressive is someone who has no fear.”

“John Conyers gave me the spirit. He helped me to know I can have a voice. You can do all of this and still be respected,” said Waters, who has criticized and called for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. 

She also took a swipe at Trump, who she said “doesn’t understand the Constitution” or “have an appreciation for the democracy” and “doesn’t deserve to be the president of the United States.”

The impeachment inquiry will continue despite death threats that have come her way, Waters said.

“John Conyers, whether you said it or not, this fight is for you," she said. "I’m not walking away from this fight. You have done too much to allow that this man who is that office illegally be allowed to stay in this office and to undermine all that you have done, all that you have cared about, all that you have thought about.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who lost husband U.S. Rep. John Dingell earlier this year, said she knew the family’s pain.

“We’ve lost so many people this year,” she said. “...We’re losing too many giants.”

When he first ran for office, Conyers won by 158 votes, Dingell said.

“John Conyers was a fighter,” she said. “He always had a vision for the future and a respect for the past.”

Conyers knew she had been sad when Dingell’s husband fell ill after she took office and always took the time to check on her, Dingell said.

“He was dean of our region and he never left our side to make sure we were taken care of,” she said.

Julian Epstein, a congressional staffer for Conyers, said remembered the longtime congressman as a man who was “unfailingly dignified.” He was “the first to call whenever the chips were down” and “I never knew him to take a day off," Epstein said.

“He loved the people of this great city of Detroit,” he said. “He was never too busy or never to self-important to make time for any of you.”

Sen. Gary Peters said Conyers was a “living legend” who freely gave advice, even when the Bloomfield Township Democrat said he did not ask for it.

“But I always gladly accepted it,” Peters said. “It always was wise and from his heart.”

Memorial in works

Conyers “was my man,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, senior pastor of Fellowship Chapel and president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP.

“He was consistent, he was a leader and he was our own national treasure," Anthony said.

“John Conyers went out on the limb for us. He shook the tree,” he added. “Who will pick up the fruit and who will shake the tree now?”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he and City Council President Brenda Jones will be working with the Conyers family on a permanent memorial.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer noted the auto workers, seniors and everyday people whose lives were made better because of Conyers’ work.

“Jobs, justice, peace …,” Whitmer said. “That is a legacy that everyone in our state is proud of.”

The Democratic governor said she had ordered all flags be flown at half-staff in Michigan through Sunday to pay tribute to the former congressman who enlisted as a soldier in the National Guard just after high school. 

“He could not have known at the time how appropriate the guard could be for his life; always ready, always there,” she said. “It is on us to mentor the next generation and make sure they know the legacy of John Conyers.”

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist added Conyers, a family friend, created conditions that “propelled us to places that were unavailable and unimaginable” to prior generations.

“Every time there was a wrong to be righted, John Conyers was there,” he said. “These historic actions will reverberate for eternity … and no innuendo will take that away.  We have to commit to honoring him.”

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First family of Detroit

Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, pastor of Greater Grace Temple, opened the Monday service, noting that the Conyers’ family is one of the most significant in the history of Detroit.

“This is not just a distinguished gentleman, this is the distinguished gentleman,” Ellis said of Conyers. 

Bishop P.A. Brooks, during the invocation, called Conyers a “man of steel and velvet.”

Before the funeral, former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said he was surprised by Conyers' passing. He had been looking well a month ago when the two spent time together during an outing at the Detroit Golf Club, Bing said.

Bing said he regarded Conyers as a “warrior, a fighter, another great man” who dedicated his life to service. 

Stabenow said Conyers cared about people and his city of Detroit.

“He was a man who put his imprint on the fight for civil rights, and justice and equal treatment for people,” Stabenow said.

“He was a gifted politician,” Dyson said before entering the church on Seven Mile. “His life was its own eulogy. All I have to do is narrate the details of his tremendous and  transcendent career. An extraordinary figure, he lived his life fully every day.” 

Former Detroit Democratic Congressman Hansen Clarke, the friend, former aide and fundraiser to Conyers, held back tears as he described how “I owe the fact that I held political office to him.”

“I saw firsthand how he would help people and support causes that were unpopular,” Clarke said. “But he would do it because it was the right thing.”

In Washington, D.C., Rocky Twyman of Rockville, Maryland, organized a prayer vigil in front of the White House in Conyers’ honor. He asked passerby to sign a card for Conyers’ family. 

“He fought many different presidents to get the King Day celebration,” Twyman said of Conyers. 

“I don’t want him to be forgotten,” he said. “He really gave his life fighting for people and all of us got something.” 

Conyers was scheduled to be interred after the funeral at Detroit Memorial Park in Warren, according to the funeral program.

cferretti@detroitnews.com

lfleming@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Keith Laing contributed.

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