john conyers was black america’s congressman

October 30, 2019
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When I think about many of the core reasons why I am a Democrat, I see the late Congressman John Conyers fighting for many of those reasons. Conyers was in the House of Representatives for 53 years, working for western Detroit as the longest serving Black Congressman in history and the sixth-longest serving Congressman of all time. He passed away in his sleep on Sunday at the age of 90. The people of Detroit elected Conyers 26 times between 1964 and 2017 and he used his time to fight for principles that are central to those of the Democratic Party.

One of the main reasons why I have long admired the Democrats is that I was taught, as a child by my parents, that this was the political party that would fight for Black people. John Conyers was one of the elected officials who helped make that so. He was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was the first Congressman to propose that Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday become a national holiday, introducing a bill to make it so just four days after his death and fighting for the next 15 years on behalf of national recognition for King, until it became law. The MLK holiday has become sacred at many colleges and universities, and I have been a keynote speaker at several resonant, powerful King Day ceremonies. Those events are always focused on King but they have also become about the resonant history of Blackness itself. All of this began with Conyers. 

He was the Congressman who was most dogged about pursuing reparations for slavery. From 1989 until 2017, at the beginning of every Congressional session, Conyers introduced a bill calling for a study of slavery and its lingering effects, with a recommendation for remedies. He was also a fierce critic of the Reagan administration’s policy of engaging with South Africa’s Apartheid regime, as well as a critic of the death penalty which is disproportionately meted out to Black people. In the 1980s, he led hearings on police brutality, decades before the birth of Black Lives Matter. Conyers was a staunch defender of assaults against the Voting Rights Act, which was constructed to protect the Black vote, and fought to change mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders. He was also a longtime jazz lover who persuaded Congress to pass a resolution naming it a national American treasure.

Before you call me a one-issue voter (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I also believe in the Democratic Party’s generations-long effort to fundamentally reform health care and expand it to as many Americans as possible. For many liberals that now means supporting a single payer system. Conyers got behind that idea in the 1970s, before millennial Bernie bros were even born. Also, I could never get behind a candidate who did not support a woman’s right to choose. Conyers got a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood. Similarly, I could never support a candidate who was beloved by the NRA, and like many Dems, Conyers was not — but he went further than most,proposing a ban of the private ownership of handguns, an idea that is Constitutional. 

I am also, generally, anti-war — I believe that most of the time, there are peaceful, diplomatic solutions that get trampled in the rush to be macho and reap the political benefits of armed conflict. This does not mean that I’m against all wars — I’m like President Obama, against dumb wars, and believe most of them to be dumb. I wish more elected officials were more cynical and critical of the call to war, which is often draped in a national mob mentality that makes it hard to say wait a minute, is this really necessary? Conyers was consistently that sort of countervailing voice. He was critical of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, against the Persian Gulf War in the ‘90s, and totally disagreed with the Iraq War in the ‘00s.

Conyers was a liberal lion who fought for Detroit but he also put all of Black America on his back and helped lift us all toward constructing a better America.


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