Former House Judiciary Chairman Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the longest-serving black member in congressional history, died Sunday in his sleep at age 90, according to his family.
Conyers chaired the House Oversight Committee from 1989 to 1995 and was chair of the House Judiciary Committee from 2007 to 2011. He was pressured to resign after more than 50 years in the House when female staffers came forward with allegations of sexual harassment by the congressman.
Conyers began his service to his country in 1948 when he joined the Michigan National Guard and then the US Army. He was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement and joined the Selma, Alabama, voter registration drive in the 1960s. Four years after he was elected to Congress in 1965, he introduced the bill to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.
“I’ve been in the civil rights movement, before I was in the political movement,” Conyers once said.
Conyers was also known as the grandfather of Medicare-for-All. He introduced the National Health Care Act or Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act in 2003, which was designed to give all Americans access to healthcare though a single-payer, government-run system. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) introduced a similar bill in 2017 and has made Medicare-for-All a hotly-debated issue during the 2020 Democratic primary.
Rolling Stone spoke with Robert Weiner, who served as Conyers’ press secretary for six years on the Government Operations Committee, now known as the House Oversight Committee, in the 90s. Weiner shared a memory of the congressman shortly before the impeachment hearings of President Bill Clinton: “Conyers was sitting in his office, lights off, playing jazz — he was Mr. Music in the Congress — and he was sad because he knew he had to lead the Judiciary hearing knowing the Republicans had enough votes in the House to impeach.”
Weiner also talked about Conyers’ steadfast leadership in the party and the Congressional Black Caucus. “He was instrumental and took such pride in being a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus,” Weiner said. “He even put it on his stationery. And he was absolutely brilliant on progressive issues. He always spoke slowly and deliberately and had such a remarkable understanding of the issues.”
For his final three years in Congress, Conyers was known as the “dean” of the House, a title bestowed to the longest-serving member. Conyers’ son, John Conyers III, spoke with PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor about his father’s death, saying, “This is part of the cycle of life.”