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 passed away at age 90 on Oct. 27. He was 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.
As a standard-bearer of the progressive Black petite-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 Richard Nixon’s enemies list, a distinction he shared with fellow Black Congressman Ron Dellums of California.
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.
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, he introduced a resolution to remove Nixon from office for his conduct of the war. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Conyers quickly put forward a bill to make the martyred leader’s birthday a national holiday, which finally became law in 1983.
The mass movement of the previous decade was not yet fully dead in the mid-70s. 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% 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.
The Black Caucus was almost uniformly “progressive” back then, by today’s tepid standards. The Caucus was pro-labor, with virtually all of its members heavily dependent on union contributions to ward off primary election challenges.
The Democrats lurched rightward in the ’80s, 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.
Conyers racked 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 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. When the Hurricane 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. 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.
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. Black elected officials have no fear of voting against the interests of their constituents.
Conyers did tentatively take action on the impeachment of President Bush for invading Iraq. He filed a resolution to consider impeachment, in 2005, when he was still ranking Judiciary Democrat.
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.
In the end, the single payers caved to the first Black president.
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% 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% of Black lawmakers voted to make the cops a protected class, with assaults against police punishable as hate crimes. 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% legislative score from Americans for Democratic Action. Black Agenda Report’s CBC Report Card gave Conyers a 90% score for his votes in 2017, his last year in office.
Glen Ford is the executive editor of Blackagendareport.com.