Street fighter in the halls of Congress

John Conyers Jr. spends a lot of time on airplanes these days, dashing around the nation like an elegant old street fighter, trying to wake people up.

He’s been fighting for a long time, for voting rights in the South; standing atop a car with a bullhorn to try and stop Detroiters from burning down their city in 1967; fighting against Nixon and Reagan and the Vietnam War.

Now, he’s fighting still, too little noticed by most of us. At an age when most men are content to play golf, he’s trying to build a "resurgent people’s movement" that will lead to Americans demanding better health care and an end to what he sees as a totally senseless and hopeless war.

What’s astonishing is how long he’s been at it. Think about this: When Conyers got to Congress there were only a half-dozen blacks there, most of them beholden to big-city political machines who told them to get along and go along.

Malcolm X was still alive and people were still getting lynched for trying to sign up African-Americans to vote. We had vast liberal majorities in Congress and a new president who pledged to end poverty.

That’s the nation we had when Conyers first showed up to take his turn at helping to govern it. There was already one black congressman from Detroit when he got there. "I remember Charles Diggs took me around and showed me where the doors were, how to get from Point A to Point B," Conyers says. "At one point I asked him how long he had been there. He told me 10 years.

"And I thought, ‘Wow! 10 years.’" Conyers, then the 35-year-old son of a union leader, was awestruck. He never imagined he would be there that long.

Charlie Diggs, who is now dead, left Congress long ago. So has every single other person who was in the U.S. House of Representatives when John Conyers arrived, with one exception — John Dingell, whose district borders his.

Conyers has been in Congress 40 years now — longer than any other African-American in history. To say that he has seen vast changes would be a vast understatement. The Congressional Black Caucus, which he helped start in 1970, has 43 members now. Martin Luther King, whom Conyers worked with in the South, has long since ceased to be a man and has become a national holiday.

Yet while many men mellow as they age, Conyers, if anything, has become more militant. That’s especially notable, given that the political culture has moved far to the right of where it was when he took office.

Many voters and officeholders were proud to be called "liberal" in 1965. Now that term has become such a dirty word that even the liberals don’t use it. If any presidential candidate today proposed trying to wipe out poverty in America, the richest nation in history, they would be laughed out of politics.

Yet it’s acceptable to invade and occupy small weak nations whose governments we don’t like. Our current government did that, giving a justification (Weapons of Mass Destruction!) that long ago was shown to have been wrong, and which now has been exposed as an intentional lie.

John Conyers has been fighting to wake people up about that too, persuading 88 members of Congress to sign a letter to President Bush, asking him to explain the recently discovered memos proving that the United States and Britain secretly decided in 2002 to go to war in Iraq, evidence or no evidence.

That may not be popular now, though I’m betting that it won’t be long before everybody will be pretending to have been against the war in Iraq all along.

Yet Conyers’ biggest priority is not the war, but some kind of universal health insurance. He would love to see full coverage for everyone, as they have in Canada. "But that’s in a perfect world, and I have to work with the one we’ve got," he says with a faint grin. If you think U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton must be helping him push health care, you’re wrong.

"She’s working on moving to the center," he says without bitterness. She may want to run for president. John Conyers thinks the job he has is the best there is. There are those who whisper about his eccentricities, and say they don’t think he is focused or sharp any longer. All I know is that last weekend he was sharp, witty, incisive and totally on top of events. Conyers, who turned 76 last month, looks two decades younger than his driver’s license says.

Biologically, he’s acting still younger than that; his oldest son is 14; the younger one, 9. "They are the joy of my existence," he says.

Two decades ago, he stunned Detroit by running — twice — for mayor. He was a bad third the first time, and an embarrassment the second. Today, he’s happy it worked out the way it did. "I want to thank my constituents for saving me," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

He isn’t ready to endorse a candidate for mayor this time, though he probably will after the August primary. But he notes, "I don‘t think you can put Kwame’s mistakes down to youth." What bothers Conyers most about the mayor’s outrages is something telling. "I can’t believe he wants to tax poor people 2 cents more for their McDonald’s," he says, shaking his head.

How, I wondered, does he keep from getting cynical?

Conyers campaigned hard against the war in Iraq before it started. Last year, he fought hard to defeat the man he thinks is the worst president he has ever seen, only to see Dubya win a record number of popular votes.

This is a man who used to argue with other black leaders when they were reluctant to oppose the Vietnam War. Does Conyers really believe a new anti-war movement will grow and will succeed?

His response was startling.

"I never claimed I was optimistic about this happening." But, he added, "I don’t have any other recourse except to do this."

There isn’t anything for a street fighter to do but keep fighting. And hoping.

"You know, these things turn on things that aren’t always predictable. You can’t just say we’ll do this, this and this, and the people will rise up. You have to remember that even in the Vietnam era, it took a long time coming. I have to remember that. And so we have to keep pushing along."

Save the Date: If George Orwell had paid attention to that nasty cough and moved to Ferndale after his book 1984 started selling, he might have been around to celebrate his 102nd birthday Saturday, June 25. But though tuberculosis did him in, there are a couple events that day you shouldn’t miss:

Detroit’s Amnesty International chapter, run as always by the sainted Ken and Geraldine Grunow, will lead a vigil from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as part of Amnesty’s Worldwide Day of Action Against Torture, in front of Avalon International Breads, on West Willis Street, just west of Cass Avenue, near Wayne State University.

The baked goods at Avalon, of course, are so wonderful they could draw people to a pro-torture rally. At 7 that night, there will be a gathering at a union hall on Abbott Street to mark the 90th birthday of the amazing Grace Boggs, a brilliant philosopher and street fighter in her own right. There’s a $10 charge, well worth it even if you miss your bowling night. For details, call Rich Feldman, 313-926-5514, or e-mail [email protected].

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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