Editorial: John Conyers was always a Detroiter

The Detroit News

Rep. John Conyers came to Congress at a time when few in the chamber looked like him.

There was no Black Caucus when Detroit voters first sent Conyers to the House in 1965. He had to help form one. As with so many other initiatives during his 53-year congressional career, Conyers was a trailblazer focused on giving black Americans a voice in the halls of power.

Conyers died of natural causes Sunday at age 90. Before he was forced out of Congress in 2017 amid a #MeToo scandal, Conyers was the longest serving African American congress member in history, and the sixth longest overall.

He started his political career as a legislative assistant for the man who holds the record for congressional service, the late Rep. John Dingell of Dearborn. 

Among the congressman's many accomplishments were fighting for a national holiday to honor civil rights legend the Rev. Martin Luther King and keeping alive the discussion over whether the descendants of slaves should receive reparations, an issue that has come alive in the current presidential election cycle.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, speaks during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on June 4, 2017.

Considered during his tenure as the most liberal member of the House, Conyers was also ahead of the times on a number of other progressive ideas that are gaining favor as his Democratic Party moves sharply to the left. 

For example, he pushed for a single-payer health care system long before the proposal was considered politically feasible.

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee he was a consistent thorn in the side of former President George W. Bush, a Republican. Conyers' committee produced a nearly 500-page report detailing what it saw as abuses of power by the Bush administration.

Though he spent more than a half-century in Washington, Conyers always remained a Detroiter. He was a constant presence in the city and remained active in local politics. He ran twice for mayor of Detroit while serving in Congress, losing each time.

In his later years, Conyers' suffered from declining health and mental lapses, making him far less a congressional force than he was in his early years. But he still had his moments. He led the outcry when President Donald Trump ended protections for the so-called Dreamers, those brought to the country illegally by their parents as children.

Unfortunately, there was another side of Conyer's career, not as admirable. He was twice investigated for ethics lapses. And his departure in 2017 was predicated by allegations of sexual harassment against him by his staff.

Still, Conyers earned his place among the nation's civil rights leaders for the pioneering work he did to expand African American political influence.