In Praise of John Conyers

Robert Borosage

John_Conyers_113th_Congress

The Institute for Policy Studies on Wednesday is honoring Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) for his 50 years of service in Congress. This is an edited version of a tribute to Conyers written for that event in Washington.

It is difficult to sum up the works of a man whose career in Congress has outlasted the Capitol Dome, now once more under repair. Rep. John Conyers has been re-elected 25 times, in a series of nail-biters with his lowest winning percentage dropping down to 77 percent. Even in his worst year, three out of four of his constituents wanted him back here championing their interests.

As a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, a chair of the Judiciary Committee, and a force unto himself, Rep. Conyers has racked up remarkable accomplishments through the years: reforms in voting rights, civil rights and civil liberties, countering violence against women and much more.

Let me just highlight two things. Rep. Conyers was the leading proponent and organizing force in making Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. At the time, as a young radical at IPS, I thought this quaint at best. Now I realize just what an extraordinary achievement it was. Each year, across America, every family and every child in school pays tribute to an extraordinary movement leader, an African American who never held office, never amassed a fortune, never picked up a gun; who roused people to march in the streets, was arrested and harassed for his beliefs, and transformed the country. The King holiday was and is a brilliant and enduring contribution to making America better.

Second, Rep. Conyers has always been called a visionary. But the bold reforms he has championed have always been more practical than the timid alternatives the crackpot pragmatists embraced. He’s led the fight for Medicare for All, which America will get to only after we exhaust every other failed alternative. He’s championed a new Full Employment Act that would guarantee a job for anyone willing and able to work, and tax Wall Street speculation to pay for the public works jobs that the country needs. And as chair of the Judiciary Committee, he produced an extraordinary 500-page report – “Reining in the Imperial Presidency” – on the crimes and abuses of the Bush administration, with comprehensive reforms to make the national security state accountable to the law and the constitution. History will record that one of the great tragedies of the Obama presidency was his decision to embrace rather than curtail the lawless security state.

A movement leader. A savvy legislator. A whip-smart politician. A pragmatic visionary, dedicated to making America better, let us celebrate John Conyers. His life, In Langston Hughes’ words, “ain’t been no crystal stair,” but he surely has climbed it to the very top.

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