John Conyers Jr., the longest-serving African American in Congressional history died on Sunday at the age of 90.
Born in the Motor City on May 16, 1929, Conyers was first elected in 1964, after narrowly securing the Democratic nomination by just 108 votes. But that was just the beginning of a life-long career that would continue for the 52 years.
A powerful figure who championed civil rights, Conyers was known for defending and advocating for progressive causes, before they were popular.
As the Times notes, in 1968, mere days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Conyers began his efforts to make MLK’s birthday the national holiday that it is today. He was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Since the 1980s, the elder statesman had been critical of the death penalty. In 1983, and again in 1997, he launched hearings on police brutality, angering then New York City Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, as the Times reports.
As ESSENCE previously reported, Conyers introduced H.R. 40 on the House floor every congressional term. H.R. 40 is a bill that would establish a commission to examine slavery in America, its impacts on Black people, and recommend remedies for these issues.
The NAACP released a statement on Sunday night mourning Conyers’ death, noting that the organization has lost “a life-long friend, and the nation has lost a fervent champion for equal justice.”
“From co-founding the Congressional Black Caucus, to advocating for the creation of Martin Luther King Day, some of the most important civil rights victories of the last half-century would not have been possible without the enduring leadership of Rep. Conyers in Washington,” Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP said in a statement. “As a Detroit native, I can attest to what John Conyers meant to his beloved Detroit community, and we are eternally grateful that he fought for justice on behalf of the entire nation with the same commitment and perseverance he showed his beloved hometown.”
But toward the end of his political career, Conyers’ legacy was marred by accusations of sexual harassment.
Former staffers accused Conyers of making sexual advances toward female staff—including sexual requests and inappropriate touching.
One female staffer claimed that she was fired for refusing Conyers’ advances.
In the end, amidst all the accusations, Conyers, who resoundingly denied any wrongdoing, resigned in 2017.
“Today we have lost a trailblazer for justice,” Johnson said. “A titan of the movement, and a true friend and ally to the NAACP.”
Conyers is survived by his wife, Monica, and his two sons, John III and Carl.