By Janis D. Hazel and Patreice A. Massey
“Don’t feel sad for us, I feel sad for y’all because you don’t have anyone fighting for y’all anymore.” As soon as those words left Monica Conyers lips it was abundantly clear what the world has lost in the passing of the Honorable John Conyers Jr.
On Monday, November 4, 2019, Cong. Conyers’ life was celebrated at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan. The funeral service lasted over five hours and even that was not enough time to summarize a career that spanned over five decades.
As we reflect on the life and legacy of the Honorable John Conyers Jr. and the celebration of his life it’s important to remember that his career was marked by a series of achievements that changed America’s social and political landscape. He championed legislation that emphasized economic and social justice throughout his career, holding true to his first campaign slogan “Jobs, Justice and Peace.”
Congressman Conyers used his gavel to effect change. As a freshman in Congress, he was the principal architect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. President Bill Clinton reflected on the bill’s passage at Conyers’ funeral: “It is important to remember not only the list of bills he passed but to remember how different the landscape would be if he had not been in Congress and how many real lives were improved by his labors.” Clinton went on to say that Conyers told him: “When the Voting Rights Act passed, it was the most important thing he had ever done so people could exercise their right to vote.” Clinton added: “Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter would not have been elected without the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Conyers continued to press for voting reforms throughout his legislative career.
Detroit native, Georgetown University professor and noted author Dr. Michael Eric Dyson delivered Conyers’ eulogy in a fiery fashion reminding us from the pulpit that, “In 1929 three great men who shaped this nation’s civil rights path and influenced our nation musically were born: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in January, Congressman John Conyers Jr. in May and Berry Gordy in November.” Dyson went on to say, “He mentored me and gave me a sense of what I could be. John Conyers was the greatest black political force this nation has witnessed, a fierce advocate for justice, a man of the people, and an uncommonly progressive legislator who represented his community, city, and country with dignity, decency and courage.”
Judge Greg Mathis wanted all to know that, “I worked with the former Congressman early in my career. He gave me a grounding in civil rights and public service that continues to inspire my work to fight for social justice and uplift our community.”
The Congressman worked on several landmark bills, especially the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday bill, which he championed for 15 years after Dr. King’s assassination. Stevie Wonder worked beside Conyers on the MLK holiday effort during those 15 years lending his celebrity to secure a day to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and said eloquently during the Congressman’s Homegoing service: “John was my fried and hero who spent his life climbing mountains for people throughout the diaspora. We…[must] commit ourselves to do something constructive for this nation and that is to vote. For those who are not registered, register and vote
The Rev. Jesse Jackson acknowledged, “When Dr. King was killed, many took to the streets to riot, John legislated and did a very unpopular thing by introducing legislation to honor Dr. King.”
Another bill, H.R. 40 “Reparations for African Americans,” was completed on the eve of Veterans Day in 1989. The halls of Congress were empty due to the holiday, but his staff was there with Conyers writing and refining this bill to introduce that week before the end of the session. Dr. Randall Robinson sent his message: “Congressman Conyers understood the intergenerational repercussions of history, and therefore strove to make ours a more perfect union. In the process, he became the leading voice in the U.S. Congress on the need for a Commission to study the impact of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial discrimination on current-day America. It was he who made the very idea of reparations – for the descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States – a topic worthy of serious analysis and recommendations in America. And for that, the souls of millions already departed are grateful, and the minds of the fair see an honest quest for justice
Well known for his love of Jazz Conyers successfully fought for the arts, and, in particular, for greater recognition and funding for Jazz. He wanted to elevate the funding level for this indigenous African American art form to the same level as other music.
The first Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Jazz Issue Forum, held in 1985, was aptly entitled “Jazz: Its Cultural Importance and its Link to Black Political Empowerment. All of those attending resolved that Mr. Conyers should introduce “a bill for jazz.”
On the eve of the 1986 forum, Congressman Conyers launched the campaign to pass House Concurrent Resolution 57, designating Jazz a “National American Treasure.” That measure was approved by the Congress one-year later on September 23, 1987 due, in part, to the advocacy efforts of jazz artists around the nation and those artists and patrons attending the Forum.
Former staff members Yolanda Lipsey and Rinia Shelby read tributes and remarks from Conyers’ friends, including actor and activist Harry Belafonte who stated, “America has lost a great politician and America has lost an important citizen.
Ron Carter, the most-recorded jazz bassist in history said upon learning of the Congressman’s death: ” I applaud him as he has left the concert. He was a one of a kind person, one of a kind supporter of this music and his spirit and support to the jazz community will be sorely missed.” In 1990, Conyers secured passage of legislation awarding the Smithsonian Institution with funding to establish a comprehensive jazz program, including the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
Paul Williams, Chairman and President of ASCAP stated, “In his more than five decades in Congress, Rep. John Conyers was a fierce advocate for the rights of music creators. HIs advocacy was born out of his deep love for music, especially his love of Jazz. Composers, songwriters and musicians knew they could count on him to understand their unique challenges and to support their need for strong copyright laws to make a living. His legacy as a champion for Jazz, for music and for the power of the arts to make our world a better place is legendary, and will never be forgotten by those whose life’s work he supported.”
In 1990, the Congressman won passage of a Congressional resolution commemorating tap dance. That resolution designated May 25, the birthday of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, as National Tap Dance Day. The Congressman wanted the artistry of Bojangles to be recognized on the national stage. Joining him for that commemorative day was Sandman Sims, Harold Nicholas, Gregory Hines and the up and coming Savion Glover who was a mere 17 years old. These tap luminaries led legions of dancers tapping from the top of the Washington Monument steps to the bottom.
But most poignant and touching of all was the Congressman’s younger brother, Nathan whose reflection on his big brother is priceless. He simply said: “My brother led a full and complete life. As the oldest boy in our parent’s family, as a Member of Congress for 53 years, he was the person I looked up to and followed. The accomplishments he achieved during his lifetime will last forever as long as you and I continue to follow his example.”
We must also reflect on how Conyers used his platform to take care of others. One such person is the mother of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks. We know of her courage in 1955 declining to yield her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus to illustrate the everyday inequities Black people faced in this nation, but what people don’t recognize is that Mrs. Parks was unemployable due to her public stance and racial bigotry in the nation at that time. Mrs. Parks once commented on how she introduced Conyers to Dr. King who then endorsed Conyers (the only politician he ever endorsed) in his first bid for Congress in 1964.
And when Conyers was elected and sworn into office, his first act was to hire Mrs. Parks, so she could have a dignified position, pay her bills and have healthcare.
Upon Mrs. Parks’ death at the age of 92 in 2005, Conyers prevailed upon his colleagues on both sides of the political aisle to grant authority for the use of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (an honor reserved for sitting Members of Congress and presidents) to allow the casket of the civil rights pioneer to lie in honor for thousands to pay their respect. There in the Rotunda, this humble woman whose dignity and defiance helped transform our nation was Lying in State for all to view and mourn publicly. She was the first woman and second African American who had not been a U.S. government official to be honored in this fashion. His Judiciary Committee colleague former Rep. Robert Goodlatte, a Republican, underscored at Conyers’ funeral his commitment to bipartisanship and recalled how “Criminal justice reform bills were negotiated by Conyers’ staff and my staff and passed out of committee.”
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is often called the “Conscience of the Congress” for being the first to stand up and speak out about issues that Congress needs to examine or reexamine, issues like apartheid. He did it because it was the right thing to do. He was the conscience of the Congress and the voice of the nation.
He will be sorely missed.