John Conyers, Democrat who served half a century in the House, dies at 90

  • Michigan congressman co-founded Congressional Black Caucus
  • Resignation in 2017 followed allegations of sexual misconduct

John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan who served for more than 50 years in the US House of Representatives, has died. He was 90.

A spokeswoman confirmed his death and issued a statement on behalf of the family which said “the city of Detroit, the United States and the world [had] lost a fearless civil rights leader and hero”.

Conyers, the statement said, “was a devoted father and husband and his world revolved around securing justice against racial and economic discrimination … his legacy and advocacy for human rights will live on forever.”

Elected as one of only six black members of the House in 1964, Conyers served until 2017. A co-founder member of the Congressional Black Caucus, he had a storied career. He was for example the only member of the House judiciary committee to take part in impeachment proceedings against both Richard Nixon, in 1974, and Bill Clinton in 1998.

But that career came to an abrupt end in 2017, when Conyers was the subject of extensive allegations of sexual misconduct including a case that was settled in private.

He claimed the allegations were “not accurate” and said he was stepping down for health-related reasons.

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

Conyers was born and grew up in Detroit, the city he would represent, where his father was a union organiser. He insisted his son, a jazz aficionado, should not become a musician.

Jazz remained one of Conyers’ “great pleasures”. He sponsored legislation to forgive the $1.6m tax debt of band leader Woody Herman’s estate and once kept a bass in his Washington office.

Before heading to Congress, Conyers served in the national guard and with the US Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean war, supervising aircraft repairs. He earned degrees from Wayne State University in the late 1950s.

From 1958 to 1961 he worked as a legislative assistant to John Dingell, another Michigan Democrat who when he retired in 2014 at 88 was the longest-serving member of Congress, a mantle that passed to Conyers.

In 1964, Conyers won his first congressional election by just 108 votes. It was however the beginning of more than 50 years of dominance at the polls, during which Conyers regularly won with more than 80% of the vote, even after his wife went to prison for taking a bribe.

Conyers was able to speak his mind. In 2004, he said President George W Bush had been “an absolute disaster for the African American community”. In 1979, he called President Jimmy Carter “a hopeless, demented, honest, well-intentioned nerd who will never get past his first administration”. Carter didn’t.

In July 1967, parts of Detroit were burned during riots sparked by hostilities between black residents and the mostly white police force. Conyers’ district office was gutted by fire. The plight of the nation’s inner cities would remain a key cause.

On 23 July 1967, Conyers uses a bullhorn to encourage African Americans in Detroit’s riot area to go home.
On 23 July 1967, Conyers uses a bullhorn to encourage African Americans in Detroit’s riot area to go home. Photograph: AP

He used his influence to push civil rights. After a 15-year fight, he won passage of legislation declaring Rev Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday, first celebrated in 1986. Starting in 1989, he regularly introduced a bill to study the harm caused by slavery and the possibility of reparations. It never got past a subcommittee.

Conyers’ office in Detroit employed the civil rights legend Rosa Parks from 1965 until her retirement in 1988. In 2005, Conyers was one of 11 people inducted to the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

In 2013, he was fiercely opposed to Detroit being taken over by a state-appointed emergency manager as the city declared bankruptcy.

He became chairman of the House judiciary committee in 2006, overseeing hearings the next year into the White House’s role in the firing of eight federal prosecutors and in 2009 on how the NFL dealt with head injuries to players.

He was also an early supporter of then-senator Barack Obama, who was expected by some in the Congressional Black Caucus to push public health insurance, sharp funding increases for urban development and other initiatives long blocked by Republicans.

“We want him to stand strong,” Conyers said.

He was touched by scandal. In 2009, his wife Monica Conyers, a Detroit city councilwoman, pleaded guilty to bribery related to a sludge hauling contract. She spent nearly two years in prison.

Three years earlier, the House ethics committee closed a three-year investigation of allegations that Conyers’ staff worked on political campaigns and were ordered to babysit his two children and run personal errands. He promised changes.

Conyers greets President Obama in Detroit in 2016.
Conyers greets President Obama in Detroit in 2016. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Then, in 2017, after a nearly 53-year career, Conyers became the first Capitol Hill politician to lose his job because of sexual misconduct allegations in the #MeToo era.

An ethics committee launched a review after a former staffer said Conyers’ office paid her more than $27,000 under a confidentiality agreement to settle a complaint in 2015. She alleged she was fired because she rejected his sexual advances. Others said they had witnessed inappropriate behaviour.

Conyers initially said he looked forward vindicating himself and his family. But opposition from colleagues including Nancy Pelosi, then minority leader, proved too much to bear. His seat was won by Rashida Tlaib, one of the first Muslim women in Congress.

In a statement on Sunday, Pelosi saluted a life “lived in service to achieving true equality in America” and said Conyers’ leadership made a difference in the lives of countless Americans”.

Along with his wife, Conyers is survived by two sons, John III and Carl.

In quotes provided by the family spokeswoman, Monica Conyers said: “My husband was a fighter; when your back was up against a wall, he was right there with you. Not just for me, but for everyone.”

His sons saluted his ability “to stay dignified when facing a challenge” and said he “exemplified grace with everyone he met”.


Martin Pengelly and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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