U.S. Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) has introduced H.R. 40, a bill to establish a Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act, every year since 1989. (Flickr Creative Commons)
Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) (Flickr Creative Commons)

While I would not dare to judge the performance of his moral obligations in the light of multiple accusations that 88-year-old Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) is a sexual abuser of women on his Congressional staff, I can say without fear of successful contradiction that in spite of that ugly stain, he remains a hero without peer in terms of devotedly advocating in Congress for the best interests of Black people in America.

Elected in 1965, Conyers was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1970. He told this writer than when he approached Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. about his idea of an organized caucus of the swelling group of nearly a dozen Black members of Congress in 1968, he said Powell asked him why he wanted to organize Black members of Congress. “In order to represent Black people all over the country in Congress,” he said he told Powell.

When Powell asked why, Conyers said, “I represent Black people.”

The Congressional Black Caucus was soon founded, and now, 47 years later, has 49 members, both Democrats and Republicans, as well as two members of the Senate.

Until it was signed into law in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Conyers introduced legislation in every single session of Congress after his assassination, declaring a national holiday be named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That shows me devotion, persistence.

In 1973, Conyers was the first member of Congress to introduce articles of impeachment of President Richard Nixon. That shows me vision.

In every single session of Congress since the 1980s, Conyers has introduced H.R. 40 — as in 40 acres and a mule — legislation to establish a federal commission to study the potential value of reparations payments to the descendants of slaves in the U.S. That’s why I lionize the flawed man.

In 1987, the 100th anniversary of Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s birth year, Conyers held House Judiciary Committee hearings, featuring scholars and legal experts, discussing the legal justification for a pardon of innocence for Garvey, the founder of the back-to-Africa, Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). Garvey was unjustly framed, imprisoned and deported by the U.S. government in the 1920s to halt his successful work of organizing Black people to seek a separate land in Africa for themselves.

And he immortalized jazz — “American Classical Music” — with H.R. 57, a joint Congressional resolution which was celebrated with an award and a concert each year for 30 years now at the Annual Legislative Conference of the CBC.

That’s some kind of special, list of accomplishments.

“I don’t see many of us left standing,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) told this writer about the void Conyers leaves behind.

His reputation will be rehabilitated in time, “if we understand that his reputation does not depend on the Euro-stream-media, and people outside his community,” Dr. Greg Carr, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Howard University, said in an interview.

“Just like Marion Barry here in Washington, D.C., John Conyers will never be knocked out of the minds and hearts of the citizens of Detroit and the people who remember what he did,” Carr said. “I would say that when this is over, and John Conyers is forced out of the Congress in ignominy, he will never lose his status as an icon in Detroit, and with a little bit of a passage of time, as things are revealed I think some of that luster will be restored, beyond the communities who know him well.”

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, called Conyers “a hero, for all the things he’s a hero for,”

“These are very serious allegations, and there is no reason not to assume they’re all true,” Bennis told me in an interview. “That doesn’t mean he didn’t win the battle for voting rights, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He still has accomplished great things. It doesn’t mean those are not true, it means that he’s got serious flaws. I wish I had a better way to talk about it.”

Personally, he will never achieve his ambition of serving another seven years or so to then become the longest-serving Congress member ever, but alas.

Me, I lament that H.R. 40 has not been passed after more than 30 years, and I wonder who will pick up the torch that John Conyers carried for more than 50 years in Congress?

Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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