John Conyers Jr., Longest-Serving African-American in Congressional History, Dies at 90
By Adam Clymer
Oct. 27, 2019
Representative John Conyers Jr., an advocate of liberal causes for five decades and the longest-serving African-American in the history of Congress, died at his home in Detroit on Sunday. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by a family spokeswoman, Holly Baird.
Mr. Conyers, a Democrat, resigned in 2017 after accusations of unwelcome sexual advances by two women. His lawyers denied the accusations, but both Paul Ryan, a Republican and then the speaker of the House, and Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader at the time and the current speaker, found the complaints credible and demanded that he step down.
Mr. Conyers was the only member of the House Judiciary Committee to participate in impeachment inquiries against both Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton.
In 1974, he said impeachment of Mr. Nixon was necessary “to restore to our government the proper balance of constitutional power and to serve notice on all future presidents that such abuse of power will never again be tolerated.”
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But in 1998 he argued that Mr. Clinton’s relations with Monica Lewinsky did not merit impeachment. Republicans, he said, “say the president has to be impeached to uphold the rule of law, but we say the president can’t be impeached without denigrating the rule of law and devaluating the standard of impeachable offenses.”
“This is not Watergate,” he added. “It is an extramarital affair.”
Mr. Conyers at a news conference on the impeachment process, in 1998.Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly, via Getty Images
But he died as one of many prominent men in politics, entertainment and journalism accused of sexual misconduct, often toward employees. Unlike many of the others, Mr. Conyers did not admit wrongdoing.
In fact, on the day he stepped down, he again denied that he had harassed former employees and said he did not know where the allegations came from.
A sharp critic of the Iraq War and the broad antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, Mr. Conyers talked of impeaching President George W. Bush in 2005. But Ms. Pelosi, the House minority leader, discouraged the idea as a distraction from Democratic efforts to win control of the House, and he dropped it before becoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 2007.
Mr. Conyers was always one of the most liberal members of the House. The liberal group Americans for Democratic Action rated his votes “liberal” 90 percent of the time over his career.
First elected in 1964 — after winning the Democratic nomination by only 108 votes — Mr. Conyers was an early critic of the Vietnam War, voting against funding it the following May. He was one of only seven representatives, all Democrats, who did.
His outspoken stands and congressional efforts tell the history of liberal causes over the last half-century.
In the 1960s he worked with Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Howard H. Baker and defeated legislation to undo Supreme Court decisions requiring congressional districts in any state to have roughly equal populations.
In 1968, only days after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Conyers began a long and ultimately successful effort to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday, which was declared in 1983.
In the 1970s he began a long campaign for a government-run, single-payer system of national health insurance, and he proposed banning private ownership of handguns after assassination attempts against President Gerald R. Ford.
In the ’80s Mr. Conyers opposed the Reagan administration’s missile defense plans and its policy of “constructive engagement” with the apartheid regime in South Africa. He criticized the death penalty and began a series of hearings on police brutality that angered New York’s mayors, Ed Koch in 1983 and Rudolph Giuliani in 1997. But he also worked to create and enlarge federal death benefits for police officers and firefighters who died in the line of duty.
In the 1990s he opposed the Persian Gulf war and pushed legislation to study the issue of reparations for slavery. He also challenged Janet Reno, the attorney general, over the government’s raid on the Branch Davidians religious sect at its compound in Waco, Texas, which ended with more than 70 people being killed.
Issues of race occupied, but did not preoccupy, Mr. Conyers. He was a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. He opposed calls for “black power,” a movement that sought to create black institutions and make black people a political force, and instead emphasized the importance of registering and voting.
And he supported censure of the flamboyant black congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1967 for misuse of congressional funds. The House voted to deny him his seat, overriding a recommendation from a special committee where Mr. Conyers served. In 1967 the Supreme Court ruled that his exclusion was unconstitutional.
Later that year The Washington Post said Mr. Conyers was “emerging as the leading Negro voice in Congress and as a growing figure in Negro America.” While there were five other black members of Congress at the time, The Post said, “only Conyers acts as though he has a constituency of 22 million Negroes.”
Mr. Conyers never rose beyond two House committee chairmanships, first of Government Operations in the 1980s and then of Judiciary. He ran twice for speaker of the House, in 1971 and 1973, losing overwhelmingly, and had two failed runs for mayor of Detroit, in 1989 and 1993.
John James Conyers Jr. was born in Detroit on May 16, 1929, a son of John and Lucille (Simpson) Conyers. His father was an executive of the United Auto Workers.
After high school, he worked as a spot welder in a Lincoln automobile plant and took night courses at Wayne State University. He enlisted in the Army in 1950, served in Korea as a second lieutenant and was discharged in 1954. He returned to Wayne State, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a law degree in 1958.
From 1958 to 1961 he worked as a legislative aide to Representative John D. Dingell Jr., who in 2009 became the longest-serving member in the history of the House. He worked in state government and as a lawyer until running for Congress in 1964.
Mr. Conyers is survived by his wife, Monica, and sons, John and Carl.
A longtime bachelor, Mr. Conyers, at the age of 61, married Monica Esters, a 25-year-old former staff member, in 1990.
Monica Conyers had a short-lived political career of her own. She was elected to the Detroit City Council in 2005 and became its interim president in 2008. In 2009 she was convicted of taking a bribe and resigned. In 2010 she was sentenced to 37 months in prison. There was no suggestion that her husband was involved.
Mr. Conyers was known as a spiffy dresser. In January 2010, GQ called him one of the “District Dandies.” This “clotheshorse,” the magazine said, “knows a nailhead from a hopsack, digs double-breasteds, and favors patterned shirts and ties. He’s a lifetime sartorial achiever.”
One of Mr. Conyers’s enduring interests was jazz. He played the cornet in high school and haunted Detroit jazz clubs. A lover of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, he hosted a jazz program on a Washington radio station in the 1970s. In 1987 he got Congress to pass a resolution designating jazz as a “national American treasure.”
Adam Clymer, a reporter and editor at The Times from 1977 to 2003, died in 2018. Mariel Padilla contributed reporting.
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