John Conyers Dies At 90, Leaving Behind Complicated Legacy
Former Rep. John Conyers, who died Sunday at 90, was the longest-serving black congressman in history. But longevity wasn't his sole achievement. He co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. After Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, Conyers introduced the first bill to create a federal holiday for the civil rights leader. He opposed the Vietnam and both Bushes' Iraq wars. He pissed off New York mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani with his hearings on police brutality. He also sponsored the United States National Health Care Act or Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act in 2003. He reintroduced the bill every year, and now most Democratic presidential candidates advocate for some version of Medicare for All.
Rep. John Conyers on Medicare for All www.youtube.com
Conyers was ahead of the curve on a lot of issues, including advocating for reparations. He consistently fought to keep Americans from getting shot in the name of freedom. However, his political career ultimately ended in disgrace. Conyers was forced to resign in 2017 after 52 years in Congress because of credible accusations of sexual misconduct, which he denied. The House was under Republican control at the time, but it wasn't just Donald Trump-enabler Paul Ryan hypocritically showing Conyers the door. Fellow Democrats Nancy Pelosi and James Clyburn also told Conyers it was time to go.
Pelosi had initially defended Conyers, but the compelling public account from former staffer Marion Brown turned the tide. Brown claimed during a "Today" show interview that Conyers repeatedly propositioned her for sex and "violated her body." She said this was a regular occurrence during the 11 years she worked for Conyers, but she described one specifically horrific incident in a Chicago hotel room.
BROWN: He was undressed down to his underwear. He asked me to satisfy to him sexually. He pointed to genital areas of his body and asked me to touch him.
I was frozen shocked. I didn't want to lose my job, I didn't want to upset him. Also, he asked me to find other people that would satisfy him. I just tried to escape. I did tell him that I was not going to do that and I did not feel comfortable.
It's a strange coincidence that Conyers would die the same day that Katie Hill resigned from the House. New House rules were implemented after Conyers's retirement that forbid any "sexual relationship with any employee of the House who works under the supervision of the Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner." But what Brown described -- the trauma she endured -- isn't a "relationship" or even a misguided hookup. It's sexual abuse. We should appreciate the difference. If a teacher is fired for kicking a student in the head, it doesn't really address the issue if all teachers are banned from wearing steel-toed boots.
Rep. John Conyers Accuser Reveals Her Identity, Alleges Sexual Misconduct By Him | TODAY www.youtube.com
Conyers was a fierce defender of Bill Clinton during the president's impeachment. He said Republicans were "devaluating the standard of impeachable offenses." This wasn't some common Watergate. It was just an "extramarital affair." With the benefit of hindsight and the #MeToo movement, you start to see two distinct ideologies motivating Clinton's strongest defenders. There were people -- including prominent feminists -- who opposed the right-wing crusade against Clinton because they supported personal privacy and sexual freedom. But some powerful men at the time were actually defending their inalienable right to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, without consequence. Harvey Weinstein, after all, donated to Clinton's 1998 legal defense fund.
As Voltaire said, the living deserve our respect, but the dead deserve only the truth. I can honestly say Conyers contributed positively to the world. However, his treatment of women leaves a permanent stain. It's disturbing but an unfortunate reality that someone who advocated for the powerless and vulnerable would abuse his own power so greatly. One important lesson is that no political leader is irreplaceable. We should never fear demanding accountability. Rashida Tlaib now represents Michigan's 13th District, which Conyers served for decades. She is just as much a liberal firebrand as Conyers was at his best. We don't have to give great men a pass because there are always great women to replace them.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle.