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For 50 years Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) has recognized the big picture and worked with activists inside and outside the halls of Congress to push for big systemic change, like ending illegal wars and achieving full employment and universal healthcare.(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Celebrating John Conyers, the Longest-Serving African-American Congressman

For 50 years, Detroit's own John Conyers has been an advocate for important social issues.

John Cavanagh

As Republicans take control of Congress this week, it’s a good time for progressives to reflect on the long arc of social change. And I can think of no better way to do this than to celebrate the half century of service of Rep. John Conyers. 

First elected to represent Detroit in 1965, Conyers is now the longest-serving African-American. For 50 years he has recognized the big picture and worked with activists inside and outside the halls of Congress to push for big systemic change, like ending illegal wars and achieving full employment and universal healthcare.

And he’s still going strong. At a January 7 tribute party co-hosted by 20 Washington, DC-based progressive groups, Conyers said, “Martin Luther King has shaped me in so many ways. Jobs, justice, and peace—it’s not hard to put a philosophy of that kind into political action. And the struggle is only beginning.”

In one of his numerous successful political actions, Conyers introduced the first bill to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. He’s also been a master of using bills strategically and creatively to expand the boundaries of the Washington debate.

If you check out the list of “key issues” on his web site, you’ll find a topic you’re unlikely to find on any other congressional web site: reparations. In every session since 1989 he has introduced a bill, HR 40, which would create a commission to study and recommend remedies for the impacts of slavery on today’s African-Americans.

Civil rights icon Julian Bond paid tribute to Conyers at the Washington celebration, pointing out that “The number of people who support reparations today is small, but it was larger this year than last year and it will be larger next year than this year. And John Conyers will be around long enough to be there when they sign it into law.”

Activist and actor Danny Glover also chimed in, pointing out that the call for reparations is taking off in Brazil and other former slave-holding nations around the world. “John Conyers is always on the right side of history,” Glover said.

Conyers has been equally bold on foreign policy issues. A Korean War veteran, Conyers became a prominent critic of the Vietnam War and later founded the Out of Afghanistan and Out of Iraq caucuses in Congress, working hand in hand with the peace movement.

Marcus Raskin, co-founder of my organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, toasted Conyers for being a fellow member of Nixon’s Enemies List, of which only 50 or so are still living. Another member of that esteemed group, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), also attended the Conyers tribute.

“Nixon was totally correct in seeing John as a threat,” Raskin said. “He not only voted to impeach Nixon, but over the past 50 years, he’s proved to be a very dangerous threat to the forces that want to undermine our democracy.”

For social change activists, Conyers has been our progressive pole in Congress.  On health care, he laid out the strong position on a single payer system that would deliver quality health care for everyone, and he invited dozens of movement groups to his office to help build that movement.  On jobs, he has staked out the strongest position on a full-employment economy, and he’s rallied groups to this position.  Both of these bold positions have helped move the overall national conversation in a much more progressive direction.  He and core allies in the Congressional Progressive Caucus have created a counterpart in Congress to progressive groups on the ground.  

I pointed out to Conyers that to beat the record for congressional longevity, he will need to hang on as long as Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who retired in December after serving since 1955.

“Okay, nine years and 22 days from now, let’s get back together,” he replied.


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John Cavanagh

John Cavanagh is director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, and co-author of The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed (Beacon Press, 2021).

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