Former Michigan Rep. John Conyers, a long-time fixture of the Democratic Party in Washington and one of the longest-serving members of Congress, passed away at his home on Sunday at the age of 90, the Associated Press reported.
According to Detroit Police spokesman Cpl. Dan Donakowski, Conyers’ death appears to have been the result of “natural causes.”
“Dean” of the Congressional Black Caucus
Conyers was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group he helped form when he was one of only six black members of Congress upon his first election to the legislative body in 1964.
Though he only won that first race by a margin of just 108 votes, he went on to represent his district, which covered much of Detroit, for more than 50 years, often winning re-election with over 80% of the vote. This was the case even as he was beset by scandal on several occasions, such as when his wife went to prison for two years on bribery charges in 2009.
It was, however, another scandal that finally compelled his retirement from Congress in late 2017 during the rise of the #MeToo movement, when it was revealed that he had paid a hefty confidential settlement of $27,000 to a former staffer who was fired after rejecting his unwanted sexual advances, according to NBC News. Other allegedly inappropriate behavior witnessed by staffers had also come to the forefront prior to his eventual decision to resign, Fox News reported.
Army veteran turned congressman
Conyers was born and raised in Detroit and was the son of a United Auto Workers union organizer. He served in the Korean War as a member of the National Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, after the war, earned a bachelor’s and a law degree from Wayne State University.
He began his lengthy career in politics as a legislative assistant to Democratic Michigan Rep. John Dingell, previously the longest-serving member of Congress, before running for election himself.
Arguably his biggest focus during his 53 years in Congress was advocating for civil rights issues, such as reparations for slavery, and a key achievement in that regard was his legislation that declared Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday in 1986. With regard to the King holiday, Rev. Jesse Jackson said it never would have been possible without the efforts of Conyers — “no doubt about that” — and said the long-serving lawmaker “was one of the most consequential congressmen.”
By virtue of the decades he spent on the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers was notably the only panel member to have taken part in two different impeachment efforts, those for former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
Focus on Detroit
Though he was certainly a staunchly liberal Democrat, Conyers had a habit of calling out politicians from both the right and the left for failing to adequately address the issues of the black community in general and Detroit in particular.
With respect to his hometown, Conyers lamented the issues that plagued it in 2004 with a set of observations that, sadly, are still quite applicable today: “In Detroit you’ve got high unemployment, a poverty rate of at least 30%, schools not in great shape, high illiteracy, poor families not safe from crime, without health insurance, problems with housing,” he told the AP. “You can’t fix one problem by itself — they’re all connected.”
The late Rep. Conyers is survived by his wife Monica and their two sons, John III and Carl, according to Forbes.