Michigan Congressman John Conyers Dies At 90
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We learned this afternoon that former Congressman John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, has died at the age of 90. Conyers represented the Detroit area for more than five decades before he resigned in 2017. He was elected to Congress in 1964, the same year that the Civil Rights Act was passed. And one of the first people he brought onto his staff was Rosa Parks.
He was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the first African American to serve on the House Judiciary Committee, where he was later the ranking member. In Congress, he put his energy into criminal justice reform. Working with the Justice Department, he sponsored a study on police brutality and held hearings in cities around the country on that topic.
Shortly before Representative Conyers resigned, I sat down with him in Detroit to reflect on a pivotal moment in his time in office, events known in Detroit as the uprising, when a police raid on a party for returning veterans held at an unlicensed after-hours club set off fires and chaos for five days. I started our conversation by asking him to remember that day.
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MARTIN: It was 9 a.m. And the deputy police chief called you and asked you to come down to 12th and Claremont, where people were already gathering. Can you just take us back to that moment - and just ask you, what was it like for you?
JOHN CONYERS: I can never forget the fact that Lyndon Johnson, then the president of the United States, called me at my home to verify that this was as bad as he had been advised that it was. There were tanks coming in, paratroopers sent by the president himself. It was just unbelievable. It was total breakdown of a civil city.
MARTIN: What do you think it - I mean, the spark was the raid on The Blind Pig. But you have said many times since then that was just the spark that set it off. What is the real why of it in your opinion?
CONYERS: The underlying cause was the racism and segregation that permeated everything that we did, where we lived, where we were, how you were treated, especially by the police.
MARTIN: Do you think it made your job harder or easier? And the reason I ask that is you were only in your second term in Congress. And you were one of the founders of the Black Caucus. I mean, you were trying to get people to pay attention to a lot of these issues. On the one hand, you certainly got the world's attention. On the other hand, some people think it ignited this kind of backlash of, you know, racial paranoia. So what do you think?
CONYERS: Well, I would like to think that it made it more challenging. But, fortunately, we were able to bring together a number of organizations that were helpful. And we began to systematically examine these causes of discriminatory action on the part not only of the police whose brutality is - was unspeakable at that time but other obvious discrimination in terms of where you lived or where you worked and how your conduct was monitored by police all around you. It just created this explosion of anger that had built up and could not be contained and that ran for the course of five days and cost 43 people their lives.
MARTIN: That was Congressman John Conyers speaking with us back in 2017 about his role in the 1967 Detroit uprising. Representative Conyers died today at the age of 90. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.