Farewell to John Conyers Jr. – and to His Era
John Conyers’ long career is a window on the decline of Black politics in the two generations since the demise of the mass Black movement.
“Conyers managed to preserve some shred of dignity years longer than the Black Caucus as a whole.”
John Conyers passed away at age 90 this week, the sixth longest-serving U.S. Representative in history, having spent more than half a century representing Detroit, and the longest-serving Black congressperson, by far.
I remember Conyers with great affection, both as a friend and as the last vestige of a time when it still could be imagined that some Black Democratic politicians might play a positive role on the road to Black liberation and world peace. He was also a jazz lover who liked to smoke a little herb – a detail that’s shareable now that Michigan has legalized recreational pot.
As a standard-bearer of the progressive Black petit bourgeoisie, attorney Conyers was the best of the early Congressional Black Caucus, which he helped found in 1971 along with 12 other lawmakers. Conyers was already on President Nixon’s enemies list, a distinction he shared with fellow Black congressman Ron Dellums, of California.
“He was a jazz lover who liked to smoke a little herb.”
Immediately upon entering office in 1965, after a hairs-breadth election victory, Conyers hired campaign worker Rosa Parks, the exiled and jobless heroine of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. "If it wasn't for Rosa Parks, I never would have gotten elected," Conyers told a Parks biographer. Parks remained on his payroll until she retired in 1988.
Conyers was one of only seven lawmakers to vote against funding the Vietnam War in 1965, the year of the first massive U.S. troop buildup under President Lyndon Johnson. In 1972, Conyers introduced a resolution to remove Nixon from office for his conduct of the war. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, Conyers quickly put forward a bill to make the martyred leader’s birthday a national holiday, which finally became law in 1983. Along with Rep. Dellums and future Georgia congressman John Lewis, Conyers was among those that sponsored the “call” for the formation of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, founded in 1973 and most closely associated with communist former political prisoner Angela Davis. (The Alliance was later dissolved, but will be “refounded” in Chicago, at a November 22 conference.)
“When Martin Luther King was assassinated, Conyers quickly put forward a bill to make the martyred leader’s birthday a national holiday.”
The mass movement of the previous decade was not yet fully dead in the mid-Seventies. It was not considered scandalous – certainly, not in Black America -- that Conyers and Dellums (who died in 2018) were openly socialist members of Congress. Both lawmakers would later become active in the socialist-lite DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America.
On a train ride with Conyers from Washington to New York in early 1977, I asked him why he didn’t run on a socialist ticket, since he was winning as much as 86 percent of the vote in his district. His mouth fell open in horror. “But…the Party would destroy me,” he replied – as if that was as obvious as daylight. I didn’t pursue the subject any further, preferring not to cause my friend further trauma.
Conyers had done me a great favor by agreeing to be featured in the pilot program of “America’s Black Forum” (ABF), the first nationally syndicated Black news interview show on commercial television, which I co-founded and hosted starting in January, 1977, the week that “Roots” debuted on ABC. It was a selfless contribution on Conyers’ part, since the pilot would be dated and never air once the syndication had signed up enough affiliated stations to begin weekly production. Beginning with its first broadcast, taped in the studios of the ABC affiliate in Washington, “America’s Black Forum” did what no other Black news entity in journalism history had accomplished: it made news, consistently generating stories picked up by U.S. and international news agencies and aired on network radio and TV newscasts.
Within months, ABF had interviewed nearly all of the 16 or so members of the Congressional Black Caucus, often in twos and threes. When Conyers appeared on the show, we beat him up from the left, just as we did every other elected official. But John didn’t complain; he was glad to have been useful to the project.
“When Conyers appeared on the show, we beat him up from the left.”
The Black Caucus was almost uniformly “progressive” back then, by today’s tepid standards. The Democratic Party had not yet begun aggressively gerrymandering districts to spread the reliably Black vote around in order to make up for wavering white support. The Caucus was pro-labor, with virtually all of its members heavily dependent on union contributions to ward off primary election challenges. Gus Savage, from Chicago, and Harold Ford Sr., of Memphis, were outstanding union stalwarts, and reliably progressive on the whole range of issues, as were most other CBC members. (Two decades later, Rep. Ford bequeathed his seat to his misbegotten son, Harold Ford Jr., who became George Bush’s favorite Black congressman.)
After four years of broadcast, as the Age of Reagan was dawning my co-founder and I sold our shares in “America’s Black Forum” (ABF) to a group of unscrupulous Black hustler/entrepreneurs. ABF remained on the air for the next 20 years without ever again generating a millisecond of news, devolving into a showcase of collaboration with the most rightwing forces in the nation (as detailed in a December, 2002 issue of The Black Commentator).
The Democrats lurched rightward in the Eighties, when for the first time General Motors’ financial arm registered bigger profits than its manufacturing division – signaling the triumph, and soon hegemony, of financial capital. Black electoral politics in general, and Black congressional representatives in particular, embraced a politics of symbolism over substance. John Conyers wracked up the biggest symbolic victory of all, when his MLK Birthday bill became law in 1983. But he was USEFUL to movement politics, as well, holding hearings in localities across the country on criminal justice system abuses, South African apartheid, and a host of other issues. The Black Caucus was in the legislative vanguard in the ultimately successful fight to divest from South African apartheid, a great defeat for the Reagan administration. And Conyers will always be known for introducing H.R.40, his Black reparations study bill, in 1989, and reintroducing it (almost) every year later until his death.
“The Black Caucus was in the legislative vanguard in the ultimately successful fight to divest from South African apartheid.”
The rot was palpable, however. By 1994, a majority of the Black Caucus was hunting for young Black “predators,” in sync with their Democratic Leadership Council-founding president, Bill Clinton, as detailed by Michelle Alexander a generation later. Only 11 Black Caucus members voted against the crime bill that led to an exponential increase in the incarceration of African Americans.
The year after the crime bill debacle, Conyers became the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. His behavior from that point on was clearly tailored towards winning the coveted chairmanship. When the Katrina catastrophe hit in 2005, forcing over 100,000 Blacks into exile from New Orleans, the entirety of the Congressional Black Caucus -- except for Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney -- slavishly obeyed House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s dictate that there be no Democratic hearings on Katrina-related crimes against the people. Pelosi feared that Katrina hearings would taint the party as too pro-Black, endangering Democrats’ chances to retake control of the House in 2006. John Conyers also rolled over for his party leader, knowing his chairmanship depended on Democratic victory and Pelosi’s favor. From then on, he would be far less useful to progressive causes, despite heading one of the most important committees from 2007 to 2011.
“Pelosi feared that Katrina hearings would taint the party as too pro-Black”
At no time during my social interactions with John Conyers did he ever impress me as the kind of man that would be brought down by the #MeToo movement. But the former congressional firebrand was, indeed, laid low by a woman: Nancy Pelosi.
In the absence of Democratic Katrina hearings, Rep. McKinney attended House Republican hearings on the catastrophe, incurring the wrath of Pelosi and ritual shunning by the rest of the Black Caucus, marking the definitive end of that body’s claim to relevance in Black America. McKinney became a Black Caucus of One, but lost her seat for the second time in 2006.
By now, the Black Caucus had lost all political coherence, and was home to a gaggle of right-wingers – a faction that had not existed in the previous decade. In a critical 2005 vote on corporate telecoms’ bid to gut public protections in the new era of digital communications, the Black Caucus voted more in favor of telecoms than the Democratic Caucus as a whole.
Conyers did tentatively take action on impeachment of President Bush for invading Iraq. Conyers filed a resolution to consider impeachment, in 2005, when he was still ranking Judiciary Democrat. But Pelosi was opposed to impeachment, and Conyers let others – notably Keith Ellison (MN), Cynthia McKinney (GA) and Dennis Kucinich (OH) -- carry the ball, which became a dribble to nowhere.
John Conyers Jr’s last big stand was in 2009. This time he was put in his place by a Black man: Barack Obama.
Conyers had introduced single payer health care legislation in 2003, when there was no chance that the Republican Congress would pass it, or that George Bush would sign it. Presidential candidate Barack Obama deceptively deployed buzz words like “universal” health care to cause the public to believe that he, too, favored single payer. But when Obama launched his meticulously choreographed health care offensive in 2009, the doors to the White House were shut to Conyers and other single payer advocates. Inside the executive mansion lobbyists for Big Pharma and the insurance industry crafted a bill designed to forestall single payer for another generation, while boosting corporate profits to new heights. Conyers was unceremoniously pushed aside, humiliated and rendered irrelevant in chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s White House, where progressives were derided as “nutty.”
In the end, the single payers caved to the First Black President.
“The doors to the White House were shut to Conyers and other single payer advocates.”
Conyers would have to look to the past for his Last Hurrah. The “Dean of the Caucus’s” political end came with awful ignominy. But Conyers managed to preserve some shred of dignity years longer than the Black Caucus as a whole, which collapsed into incoherence and rank opportunism at the first intrusion of big corporate capital at the turn of the 21st century. In 2014, 80 percent of the Black Caucus voted to continue the infamous 1033 program that funnels billions in military weapons and gear to local police, and in 2018 75 percent of Black lawmakers voted to make the cops a protected class, with assaults against police punishable as hate crimes. (See “The Black Caucus Sells Out Its Constituents Again – to the Cops” – May 23, 2018.) The Caucus had passed from pitifully useless to actively evil.
But, until his forced exit, John Conyers voted right almost every time, earning a 100 percent rating from the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, and a 90 percent legislative score from Americans for Democratic Action. Black Agenda Report’s CBC Report Card gave Conyers a 90 percent score for his votes in 2017, his last year in office. Fourteen other Caucus members earned the same score – an unusually high number, due to the dearth of controversial bills that year. None of the Caucus got a perfect grade, we wrote, because “all of the full-voting Black Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives lost ten points for prostrating themselves before the power of the Israel lobby.”
Black elected officials have no fear of voting against the interests of their constituents -- the people the cops prey on – but are horrified at the very thought of running afoul of the Israel lobby.
I’m reminded of that Amtrak trip to New York with Conyers, 42 years ago, when I asked why he didn’t run on a socialist ticket. “The Party would destroy me,” he said.
It took a long time, but they finally destroyed him, anyway.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected]