Local, state and national figures from across the country offered heartfelt condolences and praise for the life and career of the country’s longest-serving congressman, John Dingell, Jr., who died Thursday evening after a lengthy illness.
The 92-year-old retired Congressman quietly passed away at his Dearborn home with his wife, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-12) and family by his side. He had recently entered hospice care following a diagnosis of prostate cancer.
The congresswoman issued a statement announcing her husband’s death:
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of John David Dingell, Jr., former Michigan Congressman and longest-serving member of the United States Congress. Congressman Dingell died peacefully today at his home in Dearborn, with his wife Deborah at his side. He was a lion of the United States Congress and a loving son, father, husband, grandfather, and friend. He will be remembered for his decades of public service to the people of Southeast Michigan, his razor-sharp wit, and a lifetime of dedication to improving the lives of all who walk this earth.”
Dingell served in the House of Representatives for 59 years from 1955 to 2015, representing the 12th District which encompassed Dearborn. Just three years after graduating from Georgetown University Law School, the 29-year-old Dingell was elected to take over the congressional seat left vacant by the death of his father, John Dingell, Sr. a popular liberal incumbent who died while in office.
His tenure began just weeks after the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of defiance launched the modern civil rights movement and career of a young local minister named the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both of the civil rights icons would later go on to form a critical alliance with Dingell, who would be instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – although it nearly cost him his seat in Congress.
As the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company and River Rouge Plant, Dingell’s district was considered fairly liberal on issues such as of labor, economic rights and environmental issues. However, after a redistricting change, Dingell was thrown into a new district in a race against another local incumbent, Democrat John Lesinski, Jr. who, like Dingell, also had taken over the seat held by his father.
At that time, Dearborn and most of its elected officials were notoriously hostile toward African Americans and its long-serving Mayor Orville L. Hubbard was an outspoken white supremacist, who along with Lesinski had whipped much of the virtually all-white city of more than 100,000 into a frenzy of fear and anger about racial integration.
Lesinski himself was considered by many in the civil rights community to be a bigot. And as if to confirm those suspicions he ran a flagrantly racist campaign against Dingell warning of “coloreds” integrating Dearborn’s lily white neighborhoods and causing crime.
In fact, he came to be known as the only Northern Democratic Congressman to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was censured by the state Democratic Party for voting against it.
Still, to the surprise of most pundits at the time, Dingell managed to eke out a narrow victory. He went on to become one of the major congressional champions of civil rights and other progressive legislation.
In a recent profile of Dingell by Time Magazine writer Olivia B. Waxman titled, Inside the ‘Single Most Important Vote’ of John Dingell’s Record-Breaking Career she noted that for the young congressman worries about a possible backlash to his support for civil rights were trumped by a commitment to fight for the rights of all Americans.
“I was challenged in an election in which the Wall Street Journal gave me a 1 in 15 chance of winning. It was a hard-fought campaign in which I asked people: Why is it that a white man or woman should be able to vote and an African-American should not?”
He served as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee for more than 15 years, and on the committee for nearly 58 years, making him the longest-serving member on any congressional committee. In a six decade long career of noteworthy votes, among his most prominent was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Fair Housing Act of 1968, Medicare, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Affordable Care Act.
Wayne State University Professor Thomas Jankowski, the associate director for the Institute of Gerontology, was born and raised in Wyandotte, which was part of Dingell’s downriver district. He came to know the congressman professionally and said he could always be relied on to look out for the marginalized in our society.
“He protected the interests of the underdog and that is why he was so interested in maintaining a healthy social safety net,” he said. “He was a giant downriver and admired universally even by those who didn’t necessarily agree with everything he did. He was a politician with integrity and would do what he thought was right whether or not he thought it was politically popular.”
Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer agreed with Jankowski and told the Chronicle that Dingell commanded such respect because of his years of service in Congress and commitment to Michigan in general and metro Detroit in particular, that he simply referred to the congressman as “The Chairman.”
“He was always standing up and ready to be a forceful advocate on behalf of those citizens whose rights were not being respected, needs not being met, and he was there for the person who in effect, had no voice,” he said.
“Thus, his advocacy for the change necessary in the United States and U.S. Congress whether it was civil rights, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act … will be widely acknowledged by many outstanding leaders who worked with him in Congress in their advocacy on behalf of groups and organizations that asked him for his help,” Archer said.
Reflecting back on his 50-year friendship with Dingell and the special relationship he and his wife Trudy had with him and his wife Debbie, Archer noted they last visited the Dingell’s at Christmas.
“There was tremendous respect and a great love affair between The Chairman and Deborah Dingell, they made an outstanding pair,” he said. “Trudy and I were honored and always went to their home during Christmas for their open house.”
Archer said he was particularly delighted to see the congressman in good spirits and displaying his usual wry humor during a recent television interview focusing on his book. “His mind was sharp, his answers were wise and right on point and lastly, when he acknowledged Debbie was writing his tweets and wanted everyone to know you’re not done with me yet.”
“I think all of us wanted to know he would be pain-free,” he said. “But the Lord needed his counsel and wisdom and took him quickly following that last tweet. I will miss him.”