John Conyers, Longest-Serving Black Rep. and Congressional Black Caucus Founder, Dies at 90

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John Conyers, the longest-serving African-American member of Congress in U.S history, has died. He was 90 years old.

The Michigan native passed away at his home Sunday from natural causes, Detroit police spokesman Cpl. Dan Donakowski confirmed. Conyers, who championed the cause for reparations, served more than five decades in the U.S. House, where he built a reputation as a fierce defender of civil and human rights.

John Conyers
Former Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) was the third-longest-serving member of Congress in history. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“The only thing I can do is confirm his passing,” Arnold Reed, an attorney for the late congressman, told The Detroit News. “It has gotten us all out of sorts here. And I really have to just sit down for a moment.”

The former Michigan representative was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and became one of just six Black House members when he was first elected in 1964, according to The Associated Press. In addition to being the third-longest-serving U.S. congressman, Mr. Conyers was also the first African-American to hold the title of dean, or congressIona member with the longest continuous service.

Many are remembering the Detroit Democrat for his constant push for civil rights.

In 1983, he won passage of the legislation to declare Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Conyers first introduced the bill just days after King was assassinated at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. The fight to honor the civil rights icon would drag on for nearly 15 years before it was finally signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

“Our Congressman forever, John Conyers, Jr,” Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib wrote on Twitter. “He never once wavered in fighting for jobs, justice [and] peace. We always knew where he stood on issues of equality and civil rights in the fight for the people. Thank you Congressman Conyers, for fighting for us for over 50 years.”

Conyers also lead the charge for reparations to American descendants of enslaved Blacks. Starting in 1989, he would introduce a bill at the start of each congressional session calling for a “congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for ‘appropriate remedies,'” according to NPR.

The bill would never get past a House subcommittee. Today, however, the fight for reparations is a hot topic among Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who have both voiced support for the idea.

Conyers’ legacy was also marred by scandal, however. The congressman resigned in 2017 amid accusations of sexual harassment and mistreatment of his female staff members.

Conyers defended himself against the allegations, and fought unsuccessfully to get his seat back after stepping down due to what he said were health reasons in the wake of the scandal.

“My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now,” Conyers told a Detroit radio station after being hospitalized for lightheadedness in December 2017. “This, too, shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children.”

Fellow lawmakers, constituents, supporters and the like took to social media Monday to honor the late congressman.

“The nation has lost a defender of Civil Rights, the Congress has lost a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Detroit has lost an advocate of the people,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.)  tweeted. “I was proud to call him a friend.”

“John Conyers fought with vigor and empathy for people who were left out and left behind,” former Detroit Sen. Carl Levin chimed in. “My deepest sympathy to the Conyers family who are so much a part of the fabric of Detroit.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) hailed the lawmaker as a “tireless advocate for racial and economic justice.”

Conyers’ passing comes just a week after that of fellow Black congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who died Oct. 17 after suffering complications related to longstanding health issues. Cummings was laid to rest during a stately funeral in his hometown of Baltimore on Friday.

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