Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and local community leaders are recalling the political and civil rights accomplishments of the late former Congressman John Conyers Jr. as Detroit prepares Monday to say goodbye.
Jackson, who plans to speak at Conyers’ funeral Monday, said the longtime Detroit Democrat deserves a state funeral because of all he accomplished to promote racial justice and civil rights for the nation. Conyers sponsored the legislation that led to the annual Martin Lurther King Jr. federal holiday during a 53-year House career that made him the longest-serving African-American member of Congress in U.S. history.
The former lawmaker is set to lay in state over the weekend at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History before Monday’s 11 a.m. funeral at Greater Grace Temple, 23500 W. Seven Mile, in Detroit. Former President Bill Clinton is among the former and current elected officials who are expected to attend.
Conyers died Oct. 27 in his Detroit home at the age of 90.
“John Conyers is a legend, a champion,” Jackson told The News during a Thursday visit to the newspaper as he made a baseball analogy. “He’s had the most games, the most innings, the most home runs. He’s a Hall of Famer.”
Conyers’ record in Congress speaks for itself, including his long struggle to get the Martin Luther King Jr. federal enacted into law, Jackson said. The Detroiter immediately sponsored the legislation in the wake of King’s assassination in 1968, and it was signed into law in 1983.
Jackson said he remembers “marching in the cold” many times alongside Conyers who campaigned for the bill for 15 years before it got signed into law.
“There would be no Martin Luther King statue on the National Mall without … the Martin Luther King holiday,” Jackson said, adding that Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song honoring King came after Conyers’ legislation, “not the other way around.”
Conyers’ push for voting and civil rights has cemented his place in history, Jackson said.
Conyers, he said, “was a national political star shining light in darkness all across the country.”
Clinton also praised the longtime lawmaker in the wake of his death.
“John Conyers was a champion for justice equality who spent over 50 years in Congress fighting for the people of Detroit beyond — including by co-sponsoring the Voting Rights Act, taking a role in the creation of Medicare defending the Constitution on the Judiciary Committee,” Clinton tweeted the day Conyers died.
Another accomplishment was being a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Jackson and the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP.
“For many, it is the passing of an illustrious and defining political era,” Anthony said. “The nation has just celebrated the life of Congressman Elijah Cummings. We must now turn another page reflecting upon the life of an icon who stood in the gap for freedom and justice.”
Conyers was the “go to guy” in Congress, especially as the first black chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Anthony said.
“Anyone who wanted to move issues dealing with labor, human rights, South African apartheid, civil rights, women’s rights – even before the Me Too movement, federal judges on the bench or presidents in a pinch would see John Conyers,” he said.
“He stood in the middle of the street calling for calm during Detroit’s most devastating rebellion in 1967. He stood in the gap against President Richard Nixon, even making his famous enemies list. … He made us all proud as he stood with Dr. King in bringing forth the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requested that the State Capitol Commission let Conyers lie in state in Michigan’s Capitol in Lansing. Commission member John Truscott said current rules preserve the right only for those who have served in Michigan’s state government — which Conyers did not — and there wasn’t enough time to debate and enact a rules change.
Conyers resigned in December 2017 following allegations of sexual harassment by several female former staffers. Conyers denied the accusations of misconduct and said at the time of his resignation he hoped his departure would be viewed “in the larger perspective of my record of service.”
Metro Detroit, the state of Michigan and the nation “not only lost a civil rights leader, but a political patriarch” when Conyers passed away, said State Rep. Sherry-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, former executive vice chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus.
“We can never truly repay the magnitude of his sacrifice as he championed the Voting Rights Act, reparations, Medicare for All, single-payer health care and so much more,” said Gay-Dagnogo, whom Conyers endorsed for her state House seat.
Conyers “transcended generational boundaries” despite his “historical legacy”, said Gay-Dagnogo.
“He was always accessible, and while he remained connected to the modern world, through him we were able to capture a glimpse of Dr. King’s legacy, as Congressman Conyers was the only congressional leader that garnered his endorsement,” she said.
Conyers’ lawyer Arnold Reed said Conyers’ legacy was championing civil rights, racial equality and other issues “too numerous to name.”
Despite the allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Conyers, African-American, Latino, members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and other communities have “a responsibility to protect” Conyers’ legacy, said Reed, a Southfield attorney.
“That is our mission as we lay our American hero to rest so that Conyers’ legacy endures through the tabernacles of time,” he said.