Conyers, John, Jr. "The Patriot Myth: Caveat Emptor." Arms Control Today 22 (November 1992): 3-10.
John Conyers Jr. of Michigan served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 52 years—nearly one-fifth of the House’s entire existence. During his career he set a number of milestones. He was the first African American to serve on the Judiciary Committee. He was one of a handful of African-American Members to head two standing committees: first, Government Operations, and then Judiciary. And in his fiftieth year of service he became the first African-American Dean of the House, the Member with the longest continuous service.
The eldest of four brothers, John Conyers Jr. was born in Detroit, Michigan, on May 16, 1929, to John and Lucille Conyers. His father was an auto worker and a representative for the United Automobile Workers union. Conyers attended Detroit public schools and graduated from Northwestern High School in 1947. He served in the National Guard from 1948 to 1950 before enlisting in the U.S. Army and attending officer candidate school. Conyers was commissioned a second lieutenant with the Army Corps of Engineers and served in Korea on combat duty for a year. In 1954 he was honorably discharged and served three more years in the Army Reserves. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill’s educational benefits, Conyers earned a bachelor of arts degree from Wayne State University in 1957 and, a year later, earned a bachelor of laws degree from the Wayne State Law School.1 In June 1990, Conyers married Monica Ann Esters. They had two sons: John III and Carl. Esters launched her own political career when she won a seat on the Detroit city council in 2005.2
Conyers’s first political experience came in college, where he joined the Young Democrats and served as a precinct official for the local Democratic Party. After college, Conyers joined the staff of Michigan Representative John Dingell Jr. as his legislative assistant from 1958 to 1961. Conyers passed the Michigan bar in 1959, and cofounded the law firm of Conyers, Bell & Townsend. Michigan Governor John B. Swainson appointed him as a labor mediation referee for the Michigan workmen’s compensation department in 1961, and he also served as general counsel for several labor union locals. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy appointed Conyers to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, which promoted racial toleration in the legal profession.3
In the early 1960s, following a sweeping Supreme Court ruling that codified the idea of “one man, one vote,” states were forced to reapportion their congressional districts.4 In Michigan the state legislature merged two House districts that stretched across a section of Detroit inhabited by white and black middle- and upper-middle-class families. Conyers’s childhood neighborhood fell within this new jurisdiction, and he decided to run in the district’s Democratic primary in 1964. Conyers was 35 years old and struggled to secure the support of local Democratic leaders, who considered him young and inexperienced. He ran an insurgent campaign under the slogan “Jobs, Justice, and Peace,” that tapped into his labor union contacts, the black legal community, and his opposition to the Vietnam War. In the closely contested primary Conyers defeated his opponent by 45 votes.5
Detroit was a heavily Democratic city, and winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to winning the general election. That November Conyers won with 84 percent of the vote. Along with the re-election of longtime House incumbent Charles Diggs Jr., also from Detroit, it marked the first time that either the city or state sent two African-American Members to Congress simultaneously.6
Conyers served on three standing committees during his House career: the Judiciary Committee (1965–2017), becoming the first African-American Member to serve on the panel which had jurisdiction over civil rights legislation; Government Operations Committee (1971–1995), the House’s major oversight and investigative body; and the Small Business Committee (1987–1995). On Judiciary, Conyers eventually headed the Subcommittee on Crime (1975–1981) and the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice (1981–1989), which had merged with the Crime Subcommittee. In 1989 Conyers took over as chairman of the Government Operations Committee and served until Republicans captured the House majority in 1995. That year, instead of staying on Government Operations, he chose to serve as the Ranking Member of Judiciary and dropped his two other committee assignments. When Democrats regained control of the House in 2007, Conyers became chairman of the Judiciary Committee. After the House majority flipped again, Conyers served as the committee’s Ranking Member from 2011 until his retirement in 2017.7
Conyers arrived on the Hill in 1965 amid major debates about both foreign and domestic policy. Early in his first term he expressed his opposition to U.S. involvement overseas, becoming one of seven Members to vote against supplemental appropriations to fund military actions in Vietnam and Dominican Republic.8 He also had a front row seat at the major legislative breakthroughs of the civil rights movement. New laws and federal court decisions had banned segregated facilities, and the focus of the movement had turned to the right to vote. By February, only a month into Conyers’s first term, more than 2,000 protesters, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had been arrested in Selma, Alabama, amid voting rights demonstrations. Diggs and Conyers organized an unofficial fact-finding mission of 15 Congressmen to look into local efforts to block African Americans from registering to vote.9
In 1967, because of Conyers’s work on behalf of civil rights, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was led by King, chose Conyers as recipient of the Rosa Parks Award. Parks, who had helped galvanize the modern civil rights movement after being arrested in Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, later moved to Detroit and served in Conyers’s district office until her retirement in 1988. When Parks died in 2005, Conyers introduced the resolution that led to Parks lying in repose in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.10
Just days after the assassination of King in 1968, Conyers introduced a bill for a Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. He introduced the same bill in every Congress until it became law in 1983.11 Conyers, a jazz fan, also oversaw passage of a resolution proclaiming American jazz “a rare and valuable national American treasure” in 1987.12
In the late 1960s, Conyers played a part in deciding the fate of the House’s most prominent African-American Member, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, the Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. After a series of legal problems and complaints about his unpredictable committee leadership, Powell was investigated by the House Administration Committee. In 1966 the committee published its report, detailing instances in which Powell used Education and Labor funds for private business. The Democratic Caucus, meeting to organize the new 90th Congress (1967–1969), voted to not seat Powell, while a select committee, headed by Judiciary chairman Emmanuel Celler of New York, determined whether to sanction him. Conyers was among the members Celler asked to serve on the select committee.
After five weeks of hearings and deliberations, the select committee recommended that the House allow Powell to take his seat under the condition that he be censured, fined, and stripped of his committee seniority. Conyers filed a dissent that favored seating and censuring Powell but proposed that the House either fine the long-serving New York Democrat or strip him of his seniority, but not both. “When I was a little boy in Michigan, Adam Clayton Powell was the first and only black hero I ever heard of. He used to come to Detroit, and we’d have big celebrations. Adam became a personal hero to me,” an anguished Conyers told the House. “But now, no hero placed so high on a pedestal ever showed such feet of clay before.” The House ultimately rejected the committee report and decided not to seat Powell at all. But in 1969 the Supreme Court ruled that the House had been wrong in that decision.13
Following the civil rights victories of the late 1960s, African-American Members of Congress looked to exert more legislative influence across Capitol Hill. In 1971 Conyers was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which brought together African-American legislators to work on a number of policies. Although Conyers never served as the CBC’s chairman, he made his voice heard.14 When the Democratic Caucus met to organize for the 92nd Congress in 1971, for instance, Conyers led a symbolic challenge to Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma for the Speakership. Conyers’s decision to run for Speaker was a protest against the decision by House Democrats to seat the members of the Mississippi delegation despite their support for presidential candidate and segregationist George C. Wallace of Alabama in 1968. The caucus voted 220 to 20 in favor of Albert, and Conyers gained the votes of only some of the 11 African-American Members. Conyers’s follow-up motion to strip the Mississippi Democrats of their committee seniority failed 111 to 55—though in this case every black Member voted for his measure.15 Conyers challenged Albert for Speaker again in the next Congress, accusing the House Democratic leadership of “stagnation and reaction” when confronting Richard M. Nixon’s Republican administration. As in his previous attempt, Conyers lost, 202 to 25.16
It was not long until Conyers became deeply involved in the House’s oversight of the Nixon administration. Conyers and the Judiciary Committee played a central role during the Watergate crisis that ended Nixon’s presidency in 1974. Conyers supported the House impeachment effort against Nixon from the start and was such a consistent opponent of the administration that he was included on Nixon’s notorious “enemies list” twice: once as an individual Member and again as a member of the CBC.17 When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace in 1973, President Nixon nominated House Republican Leader Gerald R. Ford of Michigan to serve as Vice President. Under the provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, Ford’s nomination had to be approved by the House, and Conyers pushed the Judiciary Committee to act on Nixon’s impeachment before considering Ford’s nomination.18 Conyers’s effort to remove Nixon before confirming Ford failed, but when the Judiciary Committee later voted for three impeachment articles against Nixon in 1974, Conyers sponsored a fourth article charging Nixon with conducting an illegal and secret war in Cambodia. Conyers’s article was voted down, but his campaign to oust Nixon had its intended effect: Nixon resigned rather than risk being removed from office.19
On a national level, Conyers remained critical of the direction of the Democratic Party. Believing President James Earl (Jimmy) Carter to be too moderate, he endorsed Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic presidential primary.20 After the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush came to power in the 1980s, Conyers moved toward promoting African-American leaders. In 1984 and 1988 he supported the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s bids for the Democratic presidential nomination. In the 1988 campaign Conyers claimed that he had devoted more days on Jackson’s campaign than any other African-American Member of the House.21
Three impeachment investigations into federal judges hit the House Judiciary Committee in 1987. Rather than send all three cases to the Civil and Constitutional Rights Subcommittee, which traditionally handled impeachment issues, Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino of New Jersey assigned the case of Alcee Hastings, an African-American U.S. judge for the Southern District of Florida, to Conyers’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee. In addition to the assignment helping to distribute the unexpected workload, Rodino suspected that Conyers would be sensitive to any racist motives behind the case against Hastings. After two months reviewing files and holding hearings, Conyers’s subcommittee reported 17 articles of impeachment against Hastings, which the House adopted 413 to 3. Conyers went on to serve as one of the House managers at Hastings’s trial before the Senate.22
In 1989 Conyers became chairman of the Government Operations Committee, the premiere investigative body in the House responsible for conducting oversight of the executive branch. Critics complained he did not do enough to scrutinize the George H.W. Bush administration, and Conyers surprised many when he decided to challenge Coleman Young for Detroit mayor in 1989.23 Young won the Democratic primary with 51 percent of the vote while Conyers came in third place with 18 percent.24 After Young retired four years later, Conyers again ran for mayor of Detroit and came in well behind with only eight percent of the primary vote.25
The Judiciary Committee again confronted the crisis of presidential impeachment while Conyers was the Ranking Democrat in the 1990s. As House Republicans investigated whether President William J. Clinton had committed perjury before a federal grand jury and obstructed justice amid a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him, Conyers spearheaded the opposition and took a combative stance toward efforts to impeach Clinton. “This does sometimes to some people begin to take on the appearance of a coup,” he said. “It’s frightening, it’s staggering, this is not in a developing country, we’re talking about a polite, paper-exchanging, voting process in which we rip out the forty-second president of the United States.”26 The House eventually impeached Clinton, but the Senate did not remove him from office.
As Ranking Member on Judiciary, Conyers frequently cooperated with his GOP counterparts. In the 1990s, he joined Republican Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois in advancing new hate crime legislation after several African-American church burnings.27 Conyers managed to maintain his working relationship with Hyde even through the contentious Clinton impeachment; he and Hyde later cosponsored a measure on civil forfeitures and, in 2000, defeated a Senate bill that would have penalized newspapers for divulging classified material.28 In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Conyers and the new Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin crafted an anti-terrorism bill and cosponsored legislation reorganizing the Immigration and Naturalization Service.29
At different times during his career, Conyers ran afoul of House ethics standards and rules. In the early 1990s, Conyers was among hundreds of Members who made overdrafts of their accounts with the House bank, an internal financial service managed by a House officer, which allowed Members to deposit their pay checks and provided overdraft protection for Members without penalty. Conyers’s 273 overdrafts were among the highest. Although the repeated withdrawals did not technically violate House Rules at the time, the lack of oversight and accountability generated significant public backlash and led to major institutional reforms.30 In November 2003, the Detroit Free Press published an extensive investigation detailing the use of Conyers’s congressional staff in political campaigns for his House races and his wife’s Detroit city council election. Following an Ethics Committee investigation, the committee reached an agreement with Conyers in December 2006 to take “a number of additional steps to ensure that his office complies with all rules and standards regarding campaign work by congressional staff.”31
Conyers’s personal life became unsettled during this period as well. In June 2009 Conyers’s wife pleaded guilty to bribery charges in federal court. Prosecutors indicated that John Conyers had no knowledge of the crimes.32
Conyers experienced the closest elections of his House tenure late in his career. Beginning with the 1970 Census, Michigan began losing a House seat with each reapportionment, and in 2012 Michigan’s Republican state legislature significantly redrew Conyers’s district to include communities he had never represented.33 In a crowded Democratic primary, opponents charged Conyers with weak constituency service, and he received a lackluster endorsement from the Detroit Free Press: “Our backing of Conyers has reflected the arc of his career: first enthusiastic, then ambivalent, and now nearly agitated as his energy and effectiveness are clearly on a downward slope.” This time his primary margin had been reduced to 55 percent.34
In 2014 Conyers nearly missed appearing on the primary ballot after state and local officials ruled that many of the signatures on his campaign petition were invalid. Eventually, a federal judge ruled that Conyers could appear on the ballot, and he won the primary with 74 percent of the vote.35
In fall 2017, news reports revealed that two years earlier Conyers had used funds from his congressional office in a confidentiality agreement to settle a sexual harassment charge brought by a former woman staff assistant. The disclosure came amid the #MeToo movement, as women across the country used Twitter and other media platforms to speak about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment and assault. As a result, Conyers stepped down as Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee before resigning from the House on December 5, 2017. Conyers died in Detroit, Michigan, on October 27, 2019.36
1Almanac of American Politics, 1988 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 1987): 583; Almanac of American Politics, 2006 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 2005): 891.
2For more background on Conyers’s biographical information, see Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 534–535; Current Biography, 1970 (New York: H.W. Wilson and Company, 1970): 94–95; Biography of John Conyers Jr., accessed 30 November 2007, http://www.house.gov/conyers/news_biography.htm (site discontinued).
3Ralph E. Koger, “Negro Candidates Swept into Office on ‘Coattails’ of LBJ,” 14 November 1964, New Pittsburgh Courier: 19.
4Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964); WMCA, Inc. v. Lomenzo, 377 U.S. 633 (1964); Maryland Committee for Fair Representation v. Taws, 377 U.S. 656 (1964); Davis v. Mann, 377 U.S. 678 (1964); Roman v. Sincock, 377 U.S. 695 (1964); Lucas v. Forty-Fourth General Assembly of Colorado, 377 U.S. 713 (1964). See J.W. Peltason, “Reapportionment Cases” in The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, 2d ed., ed. Kermit L. Hall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 826–827.
5Current Biography, 1970 (New York: H.W. Wilson and Company, 1970): 94–95.
6Koger, “Negro Candidates Swept into Office on ‘Coattails’ of LBJ.”
7Almanac of American Politics, 1972 (Boston: Gambit, 1972): 365; Politics in America, 1982 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1981): 587; Almanac of American Politics, 1988: 583; Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart III, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1993–2010 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2011): 649; Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2013): 518.
8Almanac of American Politics, 1972: 365; John Jacobs, A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995): 155.
9Politics in America, 1982: 587; John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (San Diego: Harvest Book, 1998): 325; James L. Sundquist, Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1968): 272.
10Koger, “Negro Candidates Swept into Office on ‘Coattails’ of LBJ”; Almanac of American Politics, 2006: 891; Almanac of American Politics, 2010 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 2009): 802.
11Almanac of American Politics, 2006: 891; Politics in America, 1996 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1995): 683.
12Politics in America, 1990 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1990): 725; Almanac of American Politics, 2006: 891.
13Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Atheneum, 1991): 458–463; Wil Haygood, King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993): 353–359; Politics in America, 1982: 587; Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969).
14Almanac of American Politics, 1974 (Boston: Gambit, 1973): 470; Stanley I. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990): 104
15Robert L. Peabody, Leadership in Congress: Stability, Succession, and Change (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976): 208; Jacobs, A Rage for Justice: 226; Politics in America, 1982: 586. See also Matthew N. Green and Douglas B. Harris, Choosing the Leader: Leadership Elections in the U.S. House of Representatives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).
16Politics in America, 1982: 586.
17Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: 104.
18David E. Kyvig, The Age of Impeachment: American Constitutional Culture since 1960 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008): 148; Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: 421.
19Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: 530; Kyvig, The Age of Impeachment: 173–174.
20Almanac of American Politics, 1978 (New York: Dutton, 1977): 405; Politics in America, 1982: 587.
21Almanac of American Politics, 1986 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 1985): 661; Politics in America, 1990: 725.
22Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2001): 527; Politics in America, 1990: 724; Kyvig, Age of Impeachment: 293–295, 308. In 1997 Conyers cast doubts on whether Hastings should have been impeached. Conyers had gotten to know Hastings, who was elected to the House in 1992, and longstanding problems at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s crime laboratory had come to light.
23Almanac of American Politics, 1992 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 1991): 612; Politics in America, 1996: 683; Politics in America, 1990: 724.
24Almanac of American Politics, 1992: 612–613; Politics in America, 1996: 684.
25Almanac of American Politics, 1998 (Washington, DC: National Journal, Inc., 1997): 764.
26Almanac of American Politics, 1998: 763; Peter Baker, The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton (New York: Scribner, 2000): 69, 86, 120–121, 216; Politics in America, 2002: 526. See also Kyvig, Age of Impeachment: 342–343.
27Almanac of American Politics, 1998: 763.
28Michael Barone, Richard E. Cohen, and Charles E. Cook, Jr., Almanac of American Politics, 2002 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 2001): 812.
29Almanac of American Politics, 2006: 891.
30Glenn R. Simpson, “House Bank,” in The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress, vol. 2, ed. Donald C. Bacon, Roger H. Davidson, and Morton Keller (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995): 1053–1054; Almanac of American Politics, 1994 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 1993): 670; Politics in America, 1996: 684; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” https://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/.
31House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Summary of Activities: One Hundred Ninth Congress, 109th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 109–744 (2007): 21, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CRPT-109hrpt744/pdf/CRPT-109hrpt744.pdf; Almanac of American Politics, 2006: 803; Politics in America, 2008: 535.
32Conyers’s wife served more than two years in federal prison. “Conyers’ Fire Gone as She Quietly Pleads Guilty,” 27 June 2009, Detroit Free Press: A6; Justin Hyde, “Congressman Is Not Implicated in Scandal,” 27 June 2009, Detroit Free Press: A7; Barone and Cohen, Almanac of American Politics, 2010 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2009): 803; Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, 2013): 519; Tresa Baldas, “Latest Upheaval for Monica Conyers: She Is Seeking a Divorce,” 3 October 2015, Detroit Free Press: 6; Emily Heil, “Rep. John Conyers and Wife of 25 Years, Monica Conyers, Divorcing,” 2 October 2015, Washington Post—Blogs; Katrease Stafford, “John, Monica Conyers Renew Their Vows Amid Divorce Case,” 30 August 2016, Detroit Free Press: A4.
33“2010 Elections in Michigan,” Ballotpedia, accessed 12 February 2019, https://ballotpedia.org/Statewide_elections,_2010.
34Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 2015): 968; Politics in America, 2014: 518.
35Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 968.
36Paul McLeod and Lissandra Villa, “She Said a Powerful Congressman Harassed Her. Here’s Why You Didn’t Hear Her Story,” 20 November 2017, updated 21 November 2017, Buzzfeed News, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/paulmcleod/she-complained-that-a-powerful-congressman-harassed-her#.wdeG8KaWO; Colin Dwyer, “John Conyers Steps Down from Judiciary Committee Role Amid Sexual Misconduct Claims,” 26 November 2017, National Public Radio; Diana Stancy Correll, “John Conyers Will Not Seek Re-election in 2018: Report,” 29 November 2017, Washington Examiner; Sunlen Serfaty, “Rep. John Conyers in the Hospital, Aides Say,” CNN Wire Service; Kathleen Gray and Todd Spangler, “As Claims of Harassment Mount and Ethics Probe Looms, He Opts to Leave,” 6 December 2017, Detroit Free Press: A7.
Conyers, John, Jr. "The Patriot Myth: Caveat Emptor." Arms Control Today 22 (November 1992): 3-10.
Dostal, Bonita Jean. "The Decision-Making Process of Representative John Conyers, Jr., and His Administrative Assistants." Ph. D. Diss., University of Michigan, 1972.
"John Conyers, Jr." in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.
Ralph Nader Congress Project. Citizens Look at Congress: John Conyers, Jr., Democratic Representative from Michigan. Washington, D. C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972.