DETROIT (AP) — Former Congressman John Conyers, one of the longest-serving members of Congress whose resolutely liberal stance on civil rights made him a political institution in Washington and back home in Detroit despite several scandals, has died. He was 90.
Conyers, among the high-profile politicians toppled by sex harassment allegations in 2017, died at his home Sunday, said Detroit police spokesman Cpl. Dan Donakowski. The death "looks like natural causes," Donakowski said.
Known as the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he helped found, Conyers became one of only six black House members when he won his first election by 108 votes in 1964. The race was the beginning of more than 50 years of election dominance: Conyers regularly won elections with more than 80% of the vote, even after his wife went to prison for taking a bribe.
That voter loyalty helped Conyers freely speak his mind. He took aim at both Republicans and fellow Democrats: He said then-President George W. Bush "has been an absolute disaster for the African-American community" in 2004, and in 1979 called then-President Jimmy Carter "a hopeless, demented, honest, well-intentioned nerd who will never get past his first administration."
Throughout his career, Conyers used his influence to push civil rights. After a 15-year fight, he won passage of legislation declaring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, first celebrated in 1986. He regularly introduced a bill starting in 1989 to study the harm caused by slavery and the possibility of reparations for slaves’ descendants. That bill never got past a House subcommittee.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Sunday that without Conyers there would be no King holiday — "no doubt about that."
"He was one of the most consequential congressmen," Jackson said.
His district office in Detroit employed civil rights legend Rosa Parks from 1965 until her retirement in 1988. In 2005, Conyers was among 11 people inducted to the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.
But after a nearly 53-year career, he became the first Capitol Hill politician to lose his job in the torrent of sexual misconduct allegations sweeping through the nation's workplaces. A former staffer alleged she was fired because she rejected his sexual advances, and others said they'd witnessed Conyers inappropriately touching female staffers or requesting sexual favors.
He denied the allegations but eventually stepped down, citing health reasons.
"My legacy can't be compromised or diminished in any way by what we're going through now," Conyers told a Detroit radio station from a hospital where he'd been taken after complaining of lightheadedness in December 2017. "This, too, shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children."
Conyers was born and grew up in Detroit, where his father, John Conyers Sr., was a union organizer in the automotive industry and an international representative with the United Auto Workers union. He insisted that his son, a jazz aficionado from an early age, not become a musician.
The younger Conyers heeded the advice, but jazz remained, he said, one of his "great pleasures." He sponsored legislation to forgive the $1.6 million tax debt of band leader Woody Herman's estate and once kept a standup bass in his Washington office.
Before heading to Washington, Conyers served in the National Guard and with the Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean War, supervising repairs of military aircraft. He earned his bachelor's and law degrees from Wayne State University in the late 1950s.