Let me be clear. I will not join the “Bashing Congressman John Conyers” bandwagon. But I welcome the debate to separate fact from fiction in the context of a true historical narrative, and to put things in perspective in light of Conyers’ legacy because only history can liberate fiction.
To begin with, the battles that early Black legislators like Conyers fought over the decades in the corridors of power in Washington is what forced this nation to be more accepting of people of color. Those signature fights forced America to recognize the dignity, competence and skills of people of color so they could rise through all facets of life without hindrances.
I recognize that Conyers, like any other political leader, ought to be legitimately challenged and his record fully debated in the public domain because that is democracy at its best. But that recognition also requires us to not give a dishonorable discharge to giants of history like Conyers who were integral in the epic battles that had to be waged for Blacks and others to be accepted, and to be given the same opportunity on the basis that all are created equal.
No matter the disagreements in policy, the style of their politics, quantifying how much they have done for their districts, or the appropriate debate about the level of their effectiveness because of age, those who have been a lighthouses of hope in our collective struggle and sense of identity ought to be given respectable treatment.
Before then Senator Barack Obama knew he would be president, and before the world saw a seismic shift in American politics, it was Conyers who went to Chicago, becoming the first major lawmaker in the nation (Black or White) to endorse the little known senator with a difficult name to run for president of the United States.
How did I know this?
I was in the room in the thick of the historic 2008 campaign when Obama was speaking to a select group of religious and civic leaders that the campaign had pulled together at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Detroit. I was sitting in the back listening to the then presidential candidate preparing to become the Democratic nominee, say to those who were in the meeting that it was Congressman Conyers who endorsed his campaign before anyone else even took him seriously.
I am not suggesting that Conyers is some sort of a demigod or that he is above reproach. What I’m saying is that while the strategic drive to drive Conyers out of office is in high gear, with some critics already appearing like vultures descending on red meat (the botched ballot petitions), we cannot fail to acknowledge the weight of history that informed his rise to the pinnacle of national politics some decades ago.
That history has been punctuated over the years with many key federal legislations that Conyers authored, from the Violence Against Women Act, Fair Sentencing Act, Hate Crimes Act, Emmet Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, Help America Vote Act and Racial Justice/Innocence Protection Act to Martin Luther King Holiday Act, National Voter Registration Act, Sexual Abuse Act, Court Security Improvement Act, Church Arson Prevention Act and the Pigford Claims Remedy Act which ensured that Black farmers could challenge discrimination in the U.S. Department of Agriculture farm loan programs.
Contrary to the revisionists, Conyers has brought millions of dollars over the years to the Detroit area. During the 107th Congress, for instane, he secured $4.3 million in grants that went to Hazel Park, Hamtramck, Redford and other cities. In the 108th Congress, he secured $28 million in federal funds to prevent the closing of the Detroit Medical Center. In the 103rd Congress he got $2.7 million, including $1.5 milllion for Detroit police and $663,000 for Highland Park police. There are many other examples, all of which define the role Conyers has played in the halls of Congress.
Consider this: Five decades after he went to Washington with the designation of being the only person in history to have been endorsed for Congress by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he would later become the first lawmaker in the nation to stake his credibility and publicly expressed confidence in the ability of a Black senator from Chicago to become the 44th president of the United States. That is nothing short of a history setting precedent. Obama’s election is arguably the most important political development in this century, and Conyers fingerprint was on it long before even Black America was convinced, before Iowa validated Obama and before it took the world by surprise.
That is Conyers. He takes chances on those we often don’t consider important. It is just one of many touchstones of the Conyers legacy in American history — the audacity to speak out and the courage to stand with people who are often looked down upon, even when his critics easily write him off as “a crazy rambling progressive.”
I understand that Congressman Conyers, like any other lawmaker in the country, can be found lacking in many areas despite his legislative accomplishments.
Questions have been asked about what he has done lately for his district members. Others have pointed correctly to the fact that until redistricting arrived, his district was mostly a poor one.
Frankly, while lawmakers must work to improve the lives of their district members, those same questions could be put to any member of the United States House of Representatives who represents an urban district.
Whether it is Atlanta, Oakland, Washington D.C., New Orleans or Chicago’s South Side, all of these centers reflect the urban crisis of America and the common denominator in these cities is the grinding poverty that is haunting people who live there, while their downtowns are being converted into Taj Mahals.
Other Conyers critics have also made the valid point for him to bow out of the national stage, especially in light of the exits of Senator Carl Levin and Congressman John Dingell, two men who, like Conyers, have been champions of history.
Congressman Conyers should indeed give serious consideration to handing over the mantle of leadership. I asked him that very question four years ago, whether or not it was time for him to retire. He said no.
But in demanding that Conyers retire sooner than he’d prefer, let’s not ridicule, disrespect or cheapen his legacy. Let’s not in the name of forcing him to retire write off an entire chapter in American history that generations to come must study.
If Senator Edward Kennedy was the lion of the U.S. Senate, Rep. Conyers was the civil rights lion of the U.S. House of Representatives. He has been at the epicenter of the equal rights battles that have shaped America in the last 50 years. Those battles helped usher in an Obama era, and will help usher in the first woman president in the not too distant future. His contributions cannot be underestimated and must not be minimized.
True, Conyers’ legacy is informed by the era he came up in when America was soaked in the battle to make true the opening words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
As long as America continues to be a mosaic of cultures, civil and equal rights will remain integral to the future of every community.
The Arab-American community knows that and Osama Siblani of the Arab American News has made it a cornerstone of issues he’s concerned about.
The Jewish community understands it and Arthur Horwitz of the Jewish News talks about it all time when we meet for lunch.
The Hispanic community wants it and Elias Guiterrez of the Latino Press has told me repeatedly his concern about the continued profiling of Hispanics.
The Asian community has been fighting for it and Tack Yon-Kim of the Michigan Korean Weekly has raised such issues with me in terms of what Koreans sometimes go through to keep their businesses open.
The African-American community knows it all too well.
So as the deadly art of politics feeds the adrenalin rush to create the atmosphere for Conyers to exit, let’s not pretend that equal rights is only a footnote in the struggle, and that John Conyers’ contributions to America’s journey toward a more perfect union do not matter anymore because it’s time for him to go.
It would be disingenuous to think and to act in that manner.
Yes, for a man of his stature, John Conyers’ re-election campaign should have been well managed and organized to avoid the petition quagmire he now faces and the possibility of not being on the ballot. While opponents and his campaign continue to argue the validity of the signatures and seeking court remedy, the excitement of serving the red meat to the crowd should not lead us to dismiss the legacy of this giant of history.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of a forthcoming book on Detroit. His most recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, Black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a senior political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.bankolethompson.com.