On January 6, 2015, distinguished guests and US politicians gathered to celebrate the unveiling of Representative (now Dean of the US House of Representatives) John Conyers’ portrait that will now hang rightfully on the walls of the Capitol Building. That this is the first portrait of an African American congressional representative to grace the walls of the House Judiciary committee meeting room in the Capitol is telling. Like all honors earned by African Americans, Conyers’ portrait symbolizes a long, obstacle-laden struggle for recognition of service to the nation and a deserved place in the memory of US politics.
As Vice President Biden remarked, future generations of US lawmakers will respectfully point to this portrait and note the vast achievements Conyers accomplished during his service to and uplift of the American people. Representative James Clyburn correctly observed that Conyers was the catalyst for establishing a new paradigm in American political thought and action. Reflecting on the political capital, leadership skills, mentoring successes, and role model qualities of Conyers, US Attorney General, Eric Holder, stated that he, Barack Obama and other African American government leaders stood on the shoulders of Conyers. Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi made clear that Conyers has battled for the rights of all the disenfranchised and oppressed in the US, championing the Violence Against Women Act (1994) and House Resolution 288, a bill to dissuade religious intolerance, particularly intolerance directing at the US Muslim population.
As the longest serving member in the House of Representatives, John Conyers has advanced a progressive and positively “disruptive” (the term used by Nancy Pelosi) political agenda for fifty years now. During this period, Conyers was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of representatives who have addressed the unique sets of issues affecting the African American community and served as a critical moral consciousness for US government policies and US politicians, including Barack Obama (possibly why Obama was a no show at the unveiling?). One of Conyers’ great achievements was introducing a bill to create a national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another profound political effort led by Conyers has been his call for a commission to study reparations for African Americans, to research how slavery has affected the lives of African Americans and the zeitgeist of US society up until this day.
Conyers has fought against the destructive culture and business of online gambling, cuts in Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare, discriminatory electoral practices, hate crimes, and racial profiling. He has introduced legislation and supported projects such as the Alcohol Warning Label Act, Help America Vote Act, Firearm Reduction Initiative, Workforce Investment Act, State Public Funds Protection Act, Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, and the Former Prisoners Project. In his distinct of Southeast Michigan, Conyers has generated a number of programs for economic development and social justice.
Assessing his long list of achievements, it is clear that Conyers fights for the marginalized, dispossessed, oppressed and exploited in US society. This ongoing battle distinguishes the work of Conyers from so many career politicians on the Hill. As just about every speaker at Conyers’ portrait unveiling acknowledged, John Conyers is a rare person of “integrity,” high principles and intellect, human qualities absent among many members of Congress. Indeed, few people work for improving the lives of others, not themselves, and even those who devote their energies toward advancing the human condition rarely possess the devotion and cogency of a person like John Conyers.
Conyers is an unsullied role model for those fighting for racial justice and human justice in general, and should be recognized as one of the true protagonists of US society. While many US citizens will never respect his achievements and a certain element will attempt to vilify his pro-justice actions (he was one of the key figures on Nixon’s “enemy list”), it is up to those who strive for justice and human community to follow, as best they can, in the footsteps of this Giant.