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John Conyers: On the right side of history

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Nov 14, 2019 - 8:41:16 AM

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In addition to all the tributes which have been offered to departed Congress member John Conyers, Jr., (D-Mich.), I would like to offer my praise. He was a steadfast champion of the progressive Black agenda throughout his entire career. I salute him, even though his steadfastness in support of Black people cost him recognition and “status.”

Congressman John Conyers, Jr.


Most of us know about his nearly singlehanded support in Congress for the notion of reparative justice—reparations—for Black people. In every new session of Congress from 1989 until his resignation in 2018, he introduced H.R. 40 (House Resolution 40, as in “40 Acres and a Mule”) to establish a commission to study the potential benefits of paying reparations to Black people as compensation for 400 years of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow segregation.

“It’s easy to not pay attention to this because reparations sound like an old fashioned idea,” Mr. Conyers told this writer in an interview on Washington’s WPFW-FM in 2013, “but it’s actually a political concept that has been honored through the centuries for people who’ve been mistreated or wronged by their government. Enslavement certainly was one of those subject matters.

“And what I propose(d) is to ask our government to formally consider our reparations not only in terms of consideration of dealing with what we do about it, but also connected with the recognition that we did it, and that it was wrong. It hurt millions of people. Some of the wounds are still pressing us now,” he said.

Most of us know that beginning in 1968, Mr. Conyers, Jr. introduced the Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday bill in every session of Congress until it was adopted and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

Few of us remember that when Mr. Reagan signed the bill into law (grudgingly I might add), Mr. Conyers was not invited to attend the White House ceremony. Mr. Reagan subscribed to the worn out, cold-war notions of Pres. Richard Nixon, who ranked Mr. Conyers #13 on his infamous “Enemies List” of lawmakers, dissidents, and academics targeted because of their objection to Mr. Nixon’s rule. So, Mr. Conyers could not celebrate the enactment of the legislation he authored, honoring a champion.

Most of us know that when Mrs. Rosa Parks was hounded out of her home in Montgomery, Ala., where she sparked the successful bus boycott ending segregated bus service, she moved to Detroit where she was employed for 25 years doing constituent outreach work in the office of Congressman Conyers. She received salary and federal health insurance coverage thanks to that employment.

Few of us remember sadly, in 1999 when Mrs. Parks was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Mr. Conyers was not even on the dais. He was not one of the speakers honoring the “Mother” of the Civil Rights Movement.

Most of us know that also in 1987, Mr. Conyers sponsored, and drove the House and the Senate to adopt H.R. 57, declaring Jazz to be an authentic indigenous American art form—America’s Classical Music. Many of us know that he was a fairly decent bass violin player, and that he even kept his own ash-colored bass in his office. Few of us remember that he once even hosted a weekly Jazz music show on Pacifica Radio outlet WPFW-FM in Washington.

I am probably proudest of Mr. Conyers for his diligence in 1987—the 100th anniversary year of the birth of the Rt. Hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey—when he organized House Judiciary Committee hearings, featuring scholars and experts, who testified about the U.S. government’s unjust persecution, prosecution, conviction, and eventual deportation of Mr. Garvey more than 100 years ago. They called for a posthumous pardon of the Jamaica-born, Black Nationalist hero who built the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League, the largest Black organization of its kind in U.S. history.

The scholars Mr. Conyers assembled offered compelling testimony and evidence that Mr. Garvey had been framed and unjustly convicted of mail fraud by the U.S. government. “That’s an old subject that is still as important to me as it was the first day I, introduced it far more than a decade ago, Askia,” he said in the 2013 interview.

“Marcus Garvey is, as time goes on, less recognized for his courage, his strategic planning and action and the fact that he was likely denied a full and fair trial. We’ve got to go back and continue pulling up these unusual people. If we don’t make our heroes then somebody else will make them for us. And I think Marcus Garvey is certainly due a remembrance,” he continued.

His path has not always been easy. When he and others first came up with the idea of forming the Congressional Black Caucus in the late 1960s, Mr. Conyers told The Final Call that he went to Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., for his counsel.

“Why do you want a Black Caucus?” he said Rep. Powell, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem asked him. “To represent and to advocate for Black people nationwide,” was his reply.

“But I represent Black people,” Mr. Conyers said Rep. Powell told him.

When Congress convened in 1969 the CBC was formed as a “Democratic Select Committee.” Two years later, the number of Blacks in Congress had swollen to 13, and on the motion of Rep. Charles Rangel, who defeated Mr. Powell in 1970, the group changed its name to Congressional Black Caucus. Ironically, John Conyers never served as CBC Chair.

“He has been lucky enough to have lived a long, long time, and smart enough to have been on the right side of almost every issue in the last 50 years,” the late Julian Bond, former chair of the Board of Directors of the NAACP told The Final Call, at a celebration recognizing the 50th anniversary of Mr. Conyers in Congress. He was the longest serving Black member of Congress and the second longest serving member ever.

“John Conyers is one of the most important members of Congress in the last, more than 40 years,” distinguished actor, union, and political activist Danny Glover told The Final Call at the 50th anniversary event. “He’s always out there, as Dr. King, he’s on the right side of history, on the right side of history, whatever it is. Whether it’s apartheid, whether it’s vulture funds, or whatever it is, he’s on the right side of history, and I’m proud to be here,” Mr. Glover said.

Mr. Conyers was a consistent supporter of the “single payer health care” system, known by some as “Medicare for all.” And, whether the issue was racial justice, health care, economics, the environment, or gender issues, Rep. Conyers stood against poverty and in favor of full employment.

In the words of Mr. Bond and Mr. Glover, as well as Reps. Rangel (D-N.Y.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Stephen Cohen (D-Tenn.), and Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who all attended the Conyers 50th anniversary celebration, Rep. Conyers was always “on the right side of history.”