Former representative John Conyers, a civil rights icon whose decades-long career in Congress ended when he was accused of sexual harassment and abuse by multiple women, died on Sunday, a family spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Conyers, 90, represented a Detroit district from 1965 until his resignation in December 2017. At the time of his resignation, he was the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. He died in his sleep, his son told PBS NewsHour.
Conyers was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and renowned for his work supporting voter registration drives and providing legal representation for black voting rights activists during the civil rights movement. He was lauded by Martin Luther King Jr., was Rosa Parks’ boss for more than 20 years after he hired her as an aide, and was named in former president Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List.” Conyers was the first black member of Congress to serve on the House Judiciary Committee. He would go on to be the first black chair of the committee in 2007.
Conyers, an attorney, cosponsored the original Voting Rights Act of 1965. And just days after King was assassinated in 1968, Conyers introduced a bill that would create a federal holiday in honor of King, years before Ronald Reagan would eventually sign it into law.
But Conyers’ legacy would become more complicated in 2017: That year, he was the first sitting member of Congress to be scrutinized through the lens of the #MeToo movement after BuzzFeed News reported that he had settled a wrongful dismissal complaint alleging sexual harassment against a former staffer using taxpayer money in 2015. Several more women came forward after the initial story was published, accusing him of having sexually harassed them.
After being hospitalized for a “stress-related illness” in the wake of the allegations and abandoned by Democratic leadership, Conyers resigned in December before the House Ethics Committee could finish its probe into his behavior. He continued to deny the allegations. Members of the House of Representatives had struggled over whether to call on him to resign, as he was a revered member of the Democratic caucus and the civil rights movement.
News of Conyers’ private settlement with a former staffer who said he had sexually harassed her for years led to widespread support in Congress to change how it handles sexual harassment allegations, including overhauling the Office of Compliance, which had for years quietly settled similar cases using taxpayer money. Those changes finally passed both the House and Senate in December 2018.
Conyers’ seat sat open for more than a year after his resignation, and both his son John Conyers III and his great-nephew Ian Conyers indicated interest in the seat. (His son failed to get on the ballot, and his great-nephew was unable to break out in a packed primary.) Conyers endorsed his son to take his place, but Rep. Rashida Tlaib was elected to replace him in the 2018 election. That year, Tlaib was one of the new members who broke barriers as she and Rep. Ilhan Omar became the first Muslim women in Congress.
"Our Congressman forever, John Conyers, Jr. He never once wavered in fighting for jobs, justice and peace," Tlaib tweeted on Sunday. "We always knew where he stood on issues of equality and civil rights in the fight for the people. Thank you Congressman Conyers for fighting for us for over 50 years."
Conyers was born in Highland Park, Michigan, in 1929 and grew up in Detroit, the city he represented in Congress for more than five decades. Conyers served in both the Michigan National Guard and the US Army. He attended Wayne State University and went on to practice civil rights law before joining the staff of longtime Michigan Rep. John Dingell and eventually running for Congress himself.
Conyers is survived by his wife, Monica Conyers, a former Detroit city council member, and their two sons, John Conyers III and Carl Edward. His wife was reportedly once an intern in Conyers’ office. Monica Conyers filed for divorce in 2015, but a year later, the two reconciled and renewed their vows.