The Political Champion Of Reparations Has Died

For the first time in history Democratic candidates for President are expected to take a serious position on reparations for slavery. Before it was fashionalbe, however, Congressman John Conyers forced the issue. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1964, starting in 1989 Detroit Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill at the start of each session of Congress that called for a “congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for ‘appropriate remedies.’ ” Conyers has died at the age of 90.

There are people who move culture through the arts, like Tupac. There are others who use activism to agitate for change, like those in the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, there are political revolutionaries who forge change and advocate from inside our institutions. John Conyers was the longest serving Black congressman in US history and during that time he fought for the downtrodden and forced the nation to confront the realities of Black America. In addition to forcing the issue on reparations, Conyers forced the nation to wrestle with the legacy of Dr. King. It was Conyers who, in 1968, introduced a bill to establish the King holiday, which would finally be signed into law 15 years later.

Conyers on Capitol Hill in 1967.
BOB DAUGHERTY / AP

His election to Congress, ironically, was made possible by another Black icon — Rosa Parks. Parks had moved to Detroit because she was unable to find work. Parks was an early supporter of Conyers in his 1964 campaign and her influence helped immensely. After winning the election Conyers hired Parks, who worked for him until she retired in 1988. In 1969 Conyers was one of the co-founders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The CBC has been, without question, the most prominent institution in Washington advocating explicitly for the interests of Black people. While an unpopular idea, Black people have specific needs and interests and it is the CBC who speaks to them and works to make sure they are not overlooked in legislative matters. That very important institution exists, in part, because of John Conyers.

Andrew Harnik for The Washington Post via Getty Images

There are those who react to history and those who make it. John Conyers was among the latter. His life is one that touched the highest seats of power in DC and the forgotten ghettos of Detroit, all at once. He is connected to civil rights icons and yet was not unfamiliar with rioters in the streets. John Conyers very much shaped American history, in his time.

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