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Former Congressman John Conyers Dies as a Civil Rights Icon with a Tarnished Legacy

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Image credit: Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

Tributes continue for the late 90-year-old Detroit Congressman John Conyers, a civil rights icon who pursued a progressive agenda long before it became politically fashionable. But Conyers left Congress amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

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There was nothing but reverence for Conyers at a rally for Bernie Sanders yesterday in Detroit.

Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who replaced Conyers in the U.S. House, paused for a moment of silence to a man she called the city’s “Forever Congressman.”    

He never once wavered in fighting for us. He stood on issues of equality and civil rights for our people. He served us and fought for us for over 50 years,” Tlaib said. The crowd cheered in response.


Click the player above to hear WDET’s look-back at Rep. John Conyers long career. 


Conyers championed both the civil rights movement and people living in poverty.

When rioting gripped Detroit in 1967, Conyers told the city’s NBC affiliate he believed the violence stemmed from frustration among what he termed the “economic have-nots.”

The intense sniper activity and the fires that were started, they’re (from) the people that could see they had nothing more to lose than they had to gain,” Conyers said then.

I support the issues that have been most ignored or neglected or feared in the federal legislature.” Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in 2016

ConyersDawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET
Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

Conyers

Bernie, Before There Was Bernie

Conyers introduced the first legislation to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday.

He helped found the Congressional Black Caucus.

He also championed creating a single-payer health care system years prior to any calls for a “Medicare for All” progam.

While making what became his last bid for Congress in 2016, Conyers said pursuing a progressive agenda drew voters to him.

Because I support the issues that have been most ignored or neglected or feared in the federal legislature,” he said.

Conyers’ reputation for being perhaps the most liberal member of the U.S. House set a pattern for progressive candidates.

The bill that I guess I was most proud of passing was an apology for slavery and Jim Crow. And that would not have had a chance to even be heard let alone passed if it were not for John Conyers.” - Congressman Steve Cohen

Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen says Conyers was Bernie Sanders before there was Bernie Sanders.”

Cohen was a freshman legislator when he served on a committee chaired by Conyers. He says he saw firsthand the clout the Detroit Democrat had accumulated.

The bill that I guess I was most proud of passing was an apology for slavery and Jim Crow. And that would not have had a chance to even be heard let alone passed if it were not for John Conyers,” Cohen said.

My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way.” - Rep. John Conyers

Accusations and resignation

But by the end of 2017 Conyers was caught up in a House ethics investigation into multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

He was urged to resign. Instead Conyers called Detroit radio station W-P-Z-R to say he was retiring without admitting any wrongdoing.

My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now. This too shall pass,” Conyers said.

He left the political stage having served longer than any other African American in the history of Congress.


Quinn Klinefelter, Senior News Editor

Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.

qklinefelter@wdet.org

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