Select Video Clip...
Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: I've got a couple of questions about the Brown decision and its impact on you. Now, as I understand it, you were in the Army in May of 1954.
CONYERS: Exactly. Wait a minute. No, I went in August -- August of 1950. No, I came out in '54.
BOND: So you were out of the Army?
CONYERS: August 19, 1950, a date I will never forget.
BOND: And you were in Detroit?
BOND: And so when you heard about this, read it in the newspapers, heard it on the radio, what did it mean to you then?
CONYERS: Well, it was hailed as a very important, significant breakthrough. It was celebrated. It was written up widely and it was held out as an important -- incredibly important, arguably one of the most important -- decisions the Supreme Court had made in the twentieth century.
BOND: By that time you were through with high school. It doesn't affect you personally in any kind of way though, does it?
CONYERS: No. It really didn't because in Detroit I was going back to Wayne University to get ready to go to law school.
BOND: And your high school experience had been integrated because there were some white students among your classmates?
CONYERS: Yes, yes. That's right. At Northwestern High School, as a matter of fact, it was majority white when I first began attending. It gradually changed to an almost all-minority school, but that decision had no direct personal impact on me.
BOND: Do you remember thinking anything about how quickly it would be implemented, what it would immediately mean? That -- how segregation in public schools in the part of the country where they were segregated, how quickly this might change?
CONYERS: I can't remember what I was thinking then, but, of course, we know the history of it, that the subsequent court decisions that slowed it down and made it more complex and limited the effect of the decision -- I don't think I was thinking in those terms. I probably, in my youthful optimism, thought that this was going to transform the process of integration of schools in America in short order, a few years.
BOND: Now, although it didn't have any effect on you personally, did the notion of this decision, that the Supreme Court had struck down segregation, what did that mean?
CONYERS: Well, it was incredibly important. And, I argue, still is. That another blow, another dagger to the heart of the race problem that has bothered America since before it was America. 1619. We've been in this, moving around in it. You move forward a little bit, you move backward a little bit. So, all I can remember right now is that this -- there is a growing discussion about how significant Brown really was. And I've been engaged in that with Reverend Jesse Jackson, with Derrick Bell from Harvard, whom you know, and a number of other educators about it at the Urban League. As a matter of fact only a couple of months ago at their national convention, they had a symposium. There were twenty or more people, civil rights leaders, educators, prominent people, who would have an opinion about it.
BOND: Do you think it had anything to do, if not a personal impact on you, with your subsequent political career? That is, did it affect the climate in America to the point where your subsequent political career was affected by it?
CONYERS: I think it definitely did. I think that not only was the case, but it affected the whole nature of race relations in America in a more profound way than we perhaps recognize now. And I'll tell you who brought that to my attention. It's funny how you're jarring my thought process. I'm beginning to remember some things. The young lady from -- that's now in South Africa, the correspondent --
BOND: Charlayne Hunter Gault.
CONYERS: -- Charlayne Hunter Gault, who was honored at the Detroit Institute of Arts. We have our annual Black Arts Festival, an annual event, very -- everyone that has an African robe wears one, and some people that borrow some, to really create the mood. I was honored to sit at the table with her and her husband and daughter, and the Director -- and his wife -- of the museum, and a couple of people that had put it together. Charlayne Hunter Gault reminded us of what it meant to her when they heard it, and what it meant to her as a youngster who had gone -- had to run the gamut to go to an integrated school. She was -- she said this changed her whole life. It had a far more profound effect on her living in the South than it did on me, and it was -- it hit me with some force of what it meant to many people in the South, where the Supreme Court of the United States, the Constitutional authority, has said that there cannot be segregation that would be equal. There's no such thing as "segregated but equal." And I was very moved about how much it hit her as opposed to me just celebrating it as another victory that we read about.
BOND: But, at the same time, do you think without having that personal impact on you as it did on her, that it had a kind of climatic effect on you, that in Detroit, in Michigan, in the non-southern parts of the country, that it made people think about race in a different way?
CONYERS: Oh, yes. I think, first of all, it gave a lot of people hope that we could come out of it. Because we can't always rely on the courts and justice in America and it had a national impact. It probably had a global impact. I can't measure that, but certainly the national impact was profound. It gave, first of all, people of good will that were not African Americans an opportunity to come forward and try to make this thing a little bit better. And, of course, it was a like a victory. This was like a Joe Louis in the ring. I mean, we won. And you know, you were almost out on the streets. It was for a long time held in that high honor.
And then it seemed to me that gradually as Brown II came out and different interpretations came back and as slowly, regretfully, the re-segregation of many schools and the drastic attempt at busing -- "We're going to fix this. We'll have these buses," all of that -- it began to fall away. And now, of course, we're looking again at most schools in most centers of where blacks live, the schools are essentially re-segregated, with few exceptions.
BOND: Let me take you back to some of your earliest memories. This is an exploration in black leadership, how leaders are made, how they're formed, and I want to ask you kind of a standard question. Who are the people who helped make John Conyers who he is today? Who in your life, in your early years, had an influence on you, shaped you?
CONYERS: Well, my mother and father were my greatest forces, and both in different ways, Julian. My mother was just always there. She and -- they both emphasized school. My father, from Georgia -- Monroe, Georgia. Conyers, Georgia, named after the blacks off the Conyers plantation. It was a crossroads there. Mother, Pelahatchie, Mississippi, right outside of Jackson. Both came as teenagers to Detroit and met and married. My father worked in the plants. Unions in the automobile plants, they said, "No unions." Henry Ford said, "I pay you guys enough. Five dollars a day. That's the top wage in the country."
And it was through his spirit that there was this organization thing. I can remember going along to Labor Day Local 7 Chrysler UAW picnics on Labor day. Well, we went to marches down Woodward Avenue on Labor Day. We went to the picnics. We had the Christmas parties at the local union hall. I was in that atmosphere, and they were talking about "How do we get better working conditions?" And the UAW, of course, was a pioneer in saying that all workers, black and white -- which, as you know, was not the case when [Samuel] Gompers and the AFL was starting out -- and they said, "Everybody the same." And it was hard keeping that -- keeping everybody to their word, because there were elements of the labor movement that said, "No, no, we don't want blacks working in this part of the plant," or, "These kind of jobs are reserved."
I remember the story of a Dodge plant in Hamtramck. The Polish workers in the plant went out on strike when they put the first blacks working in the foundry in there. They said, "No. This is our job. We work the foundry. No blacks." Well, the foundry job is a job that everybody runs to get away from these days. I mean, nobody wants to get a foundry assignment. And they were -- these Polish American workers were proud of the fact that they were the ones that -- and they did not want anybody else in. They had a big dispute on that. Before blacks could get into one of the worst jobs in the automobile plants.
BOND: I remember reading a story about your father writing a clause to go in the AFL-CIO convention, and being rebuffed, an equal opportunity clause?
CONYERS: He was -- my dad was this kind of a guy. I wish I had brought a picture down. He always wanted to be a lawyer. But unlike me, he would never bring in his three boys -- four boys and say, "I would like you guys to all be lawyers." He read Clarence Darrow. That was -- and I'm looking at his books, so I pulled down Clarence Darrow. He read Shakespeare. He read history. And so he became a spokesman when the union was finally formed after a couple of failures -- the UAW was not the first union attempt in the automobile industry -- and he became the spokesman, and then he became the chief steward. And then finally he became an international representative for UAW working at Solidarity House at 8000 East Jefferson, and he would travel around the country in organizing things, which was doubly dangerous because many places he was sent, they didn't like union organizers, and then a black union organizer on top of it. "This fellow seems to be looking for trouble."
BOND: So you're growing up in a household where this is constant -- ?
CONYERS: We grew up in this atmosphere of, "How do we make things right? How do we make things fair? How do we get blacks into the picture for real?" William Patrick, remember Bill Patrick, the first black councilman? I was in law school when the first black councilman was ever elected in the city of Detroit. I remember campaigning for the first black judge in Detroit whose name was Davenport, I think it was Ernest Davenport [Elvin Davenport]. He became a judge, a long-time prosecutor, and I think it was [Governor] G. Mennan Williams appointed the first black judge in a court in Detroit. Harold Bledsoe later on became -- I'm pretty sure he was appointed to the court, too. His son just retired from the court and his granddaughter just got elected to the 36th District Court. But the whole idea of us being pioneers -- Detroit was the site of some ugly riots in 1943 and 1967, in which hundreds of people in the '43 riot were -- '43 and '67. In '67 President Lyndon Baines Johnson called me at my house on Dexter and asked me how things were going and he said, "I'm sending in, John -- " he says, "I'm sending in my personal representative to try to settle this thing down and I'm so glad you're there." And the fellow he sent in was the fellow that became the Secretary of State for Jimmy Carter. Remember this tall, gaunt guy -- ?
BOND: Yes, yes. His name escapes me right now.
CONYERS: But, yes, he did a good job, and was a good man for this assignment. And we worked behind the scenes with Jerry Cavanaugh, the mayor -- the new guy on the block that became the mayor as a result of all this. And it was this environment of organizing workers' rights, better working conditions, a decent wage, that I grew up in. This was a given for me. But when I got ready to run for Congress, I came to my mother and she said, "Well, if that's what you want to do," and she worked -- she covered the precincts. When my mother didn't show up at Sampson School where we voted, people would be calling to ask why wasn't she there. My father -- it was very interesting -- my father said, "You know, I think this is a pipe dream. I don't think there's any way that this can happen." And I had to prove it to him that because of the Baker v. Carr decision in the United States Supreme Court, which said not only does each state legislature have to redistrict after the decennial census every ten years, but from now on, if they fail to do that, the court will do it for them.
And armed with that, me and the late attorney Bob Millender went into court to sue to make the Michigan legislature redistrict based on the premise that because so many people were still moving into Detroit for automobile jobs, mostly from the South, mostly African American, there would be a district created in which I could run. And the local politicians said, "Please. You're going to destabilize all of us." And Charlie Diggs was the congressman and I got this question constantly: "Name me, John Conyers, one other place in the country where there are two black congressman in contiguous districts," and the answer, of course, there weren't any. And so, see, this is not going to happen. Now, of course, when it began to become clear and my campaign kept moving along, moving along --
BOND: And you had almost a year-long campaign.
CONYERS: No, no. Several-year campaign, because what happened is that the courts kept fooling around. The legislature kept fooling around. Finally the court said, "You -- we will -- you'll come up with a district, or the court will do it for you." It was at least a two-year campaign. Then, of course, it became clear that the district -- and we presented our district plan the way we wanted the district, and George Romney, Republican governor -- they said, "Okay, we've got to give these fellows a district, a new district, but we're not going to give them the one that the party wants. We're going to give them the one that Conyers and his group want, the one that they least want," and he used to always see me after that -- "How are you doing, John?" "Fine, Governor Romney." "So, now just remember who gave you that district that you got." He was always quick, and I was quick to acknowledge that that was true.
BOND: Did the district plan in Michigan then help the Democrats and help you?
BOND: But it helped the Republicans, too, did it not?
CONYERS: No, it didn't. There was no -- well, I don't remember it helping them. It was a matter of the Republicans in a moment of pique said, "Well, if we've got to give them a plan, let's give them the plan they don't want." My friend Zolton Ferency that was the chairman of the party, and he said, "John, we can't -- we don't want this plan. We want a different plan." A plan which would've made it more difficult for me to run. My plan created two districts in the city and the argument was that I could endanger Congressman Diggs by trying to get two. "You guys, this is overreaching."
BOND: So back to your father. There are four sons, and he doesn't say "You be lawyer."
CONYERS: Right. He never --
BOND: He lets the four of you find your own way.
BOND: But at the same time he imbues you with this sort of spirit of militance, and you take examples from him. And it's interesting to me that when you approach this political campaign your mother says, "Whatever you want," and you father says, "You can't do it, it won't work."
CONYERS: I had to prove it to him, but once I proved it to him, he was there all the way.
As matter of fact, I was always amazed with people saying, "What did you say your name was?" I said, "John Conyers." They said, "Is Johnny Conyers your father?" I said, "Yes." They said, "Well, we don't know who you are, but we know him, and if that's your dad, we'll vote for you."
And then I had a lot of people, Julian, I don't know if you had any experiences like this. I had people say, "Well, you know, we like you -- " I had a ten-point program that me and Millender -- we started off twenty -- "What do you stand for, John?" This question is being asked now: "Who is Kerry?" And so we wrote pages and pages…We finally got it down to ten things on a little seven by five card, and people said, "You know, I like you, and I'm going to vote for you but I don't think you can win." And I got that, I kept getting that. "Have you ever run for office before?" "No, I haven't." "Yeah, this'll probably be a good first chance for you."
Of course, when we talk about leadership, the first thing that I put down is: "How tenacious are you to reach the goal or the objective that you've set out to get?" Because if I can measure that in a person, in a cause, in an organization, I can guestimate how likely they are to be successful.
BOND: But even before this you had demonstrated some interest in politics. You had run for a party office, had you not?
CONYERS: Well, I was always a precinct delegate. I was always in the Young Dems. I was always holding all kind of positions, you know, that we make inside of party structures.
BOND: So here's an early example of your reaching for and getting a leadership position. Now, what made you think that you rather than Joe or Mary or Sue, that you could fulfill this job?
CONYERS: Well, first of all, I thought I could win the job because nobody saw that this was a district that an African American could go to Congress on. All the pols -- my good friend even, Horace Sheffield, and the people at the TULC Trade Union Leadership Conference -- said, "Look, John, you've got a great future, but you're going to have to pay your dues, son. You're going to have to run for local office and, you know, in a few years -- but, first of all, we don't think anybody can win this job and secondly, you don't bring enough experience."
But it was me that saw that this could happen because I -- and the biggest thing I had going for me -- well, there were two things. One, I had worked with Martin Luther King and gone South, met you, and SNCC, and all the people, [Ralph] Abernathy, [Andrew] Young and so forth. The other thing is that I was active inside as a lawyer. I was representing tenants, police brutality cases, and I had a kind of budding reputation as a political activist. I was with the National Bar Association, the Wolverine Bar in Detroit, the National Lawyers Guild, and I was on the board of the NAACP in the Detroit Chapter which was just in its infancy. Now, it's, as you know --
BOND: The biggest in the country.
CONYERS: -- the biggest in the country.
BOND: Well, in addition to your parents, what about somebody in school, or classmates or teachers --
BOND: -- both in high school and later in college? Who helped shape you?
CONYERS: Well, I'll tell you what happened, Julian. When I went into the service and I went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Belvoir, eighteen miles down U.S. 1 in Virginia, and I used to come back to the Congress, and I stayed at the Kappa house on 17th and R -- they were so proud to have me there and I needed to have a place that I could stay -- and I'd go up to the gallery and I'd watch all of these guys standing around. There were hardly any even women in the Congress then. And I said, "I could do that, I could -- " and then I began -- I'd listen to the debates. Then I began reading about the Congress out of the Washington Post and I said when I came back from Korea, I said, "If I ever get back from this place alive, I want to find out why I went there. Why I was prepared and trained to kill people that I don't know, and who I now suspect were prepared to kill me for reasons that they might not understand."
This is where my feelings against war and the terrible ravages of war, down through history, have cost so much of our people and our resources. And so when I came back I was determined to get to law school as quickly as I can. I became an activist. I ran for precinct delegate, and always have and I began to join the NAACP, I began to -- and when I finished law school, I was handling cases. And then I had another wonderful thing happen to me. My congressman called me in one day and said, "You know, Governor [G. Mennen] Williams is taking Charles Brown to Lansing, and I'm going to need a lawyer in my Detroit office," and that was an opportunity.
BOND: How had he heard about you?
CONYERS: Well, first of all, he knew the labor people -- Conyers Sr., Battles, Sheffield, all these guys, and they were -- as soon as an opening -- they said, "Well, you know, you ought to take young John Conyers." And he called me in and he interviewed me and he said, "What do you think?" I said, "Well -- " I'll never forget this. I said, "Congressman Dingell, thanks a lot." I said, "But as soon as I finish law school, I'm going to run against either my state representative or my state senator, both of whom I could beat in a heartbeat."
At that time, I know my state senator was a white state senator. I'm not sure who the state rep was. I said, "But I'm going to start my own career and I know this is a great opportunity." [John] Dingell looked at me. He couldn't believe what he was hearing, and when he took that back to my father's labor friends, they called me in and they said, "Look, John, we know you're going to do all right and we're proud of what you -- but this is an opportunity that comes to very few people." And they told me in so many words I better put my hat behind my back and go in there and see if I can get reconsidered for this job.
Dingell reconsidered and I accepted, and that was the one thing I had that nobody had, is I had congressional experience. I'd gotten to Washington a few times, and so it became very important. These things happen in a very fortuitous way, Julian. I don't know how many other lives have had this, but for me to be able to go into service -- and being a veteran really counted -- to get to law school on the G.I. Bill, to get to work for your own congressman --
CONYERS: A thing happened there when John F. Kennedy -- the first time I got to the White House, he was forming the Organization for Lawyers -- Lawyers Under Law for Civil Rights. And they had this huge -- it was bipartisan. I remember I saw former Attorney General Rogers, the Republican. I'm in the White House. There were all the senators and congressmen. Senator Pat McNamara said that "I can send three people from Michigan to go to this historic formation of this organization," and he picked me, he picked a lawyer named Damon J. Keith, and he picked a lawyer named George W. Crockett. And all three of us went there for this wonderful day. We took pictures in the Rose Garden. I mean, it was my first visit to the White House. It was the first President I'd ever met, and all of this was building up my political spirit of government service, and was kind of pointing toward Congress. So I was looking for this opportunity.
Then we get a district, and it's the district that we had hoped for. And of course, by that time, when people realized that there could be a district in which an African American started running, boy, they came in. I think there were thirteen people running in the Democratic primary alone, plus others. And we'd go to Dick Austin -- Bob Millender would go to Dick Austin and say, "Dick, we know they're trying to get you to run." And Austin says, "No, I'm not going to run." And then finally Austin was saying, "Well, they're putting a lot of pressure on me." And finally, he had to get in the race. And you know I won by a hundred and twenty-eight votes.
Here again, fortune entered into my career. I'm not ashamed to say I'm one of the most fortunate people on the planet -- the newspapers were on strike. The Detroit Times, The Detroit Free Press, and The Detroit News were all on strike -- because I would not have been the one that they would've chosen. I don't know who they would've chosen, but there wasn't -- nobody was worried about that it would've been me. Nobody was saying "I wish the press was going, John, so you could get the endorsement." And they were on strike. And so, here it is.
Then I come to Congress and there's Speaker John McCormack. I go to the Speaker's office and report in. He says, "Well, son, we're glad to see you and we're proud that you're coming in." This was the year that we had more Democrats than any, [Thomas] Foley came in, oh, we had huge numbers of Democrats -- "Where would you like to serve?" "Well, Mr. Speaker, there's never been an African American on the Judiciary Committee in our history. I'd like to serve on that." He says, "Well, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths has already selected Bill Ford who'd come in with you who's not only a lawyer, Conyers, but he's a justice of the peace and he wants that committee and she wants him to be -- Ways & Means member selects who goes to committee. I said, "Well, in all fairness, sir, Billy Ford and I are very good friends, but I think this is the moment in history with civil rights, and the questions of voter laws that are all coming up." Remember, this is 1965 --
CONYERS: We'd just passed the Civil Rights Act and the civil rights people wanted Lyndon to consider the Voter Rights Act which he was very reluctant. He said, "Look, we just did this." So he said, "You're right." He picked up the phone. "Wilbur," he said, "I'm sending over Conyers and I want him to go on the Judiciary Committee." And Wilbur got me --
BOND: Wilbur Mills.
CONYERS: Yeah. And Martha Griffiths did not speak to me for a long time.
BOND: I bet.
BOND: Let me take you back to the military. You become a lieutenant?
BOND: Now, in effect, this is leadership training. Did you learn things there that carried on to your future life?
CONYERS: Oh yes. Yes, I did. They had -- first of all, you had to go to a leadership school at Camp Roberts, California, for eight weeks before -- and if you didn't -- you had to make it there before you could go to any officer candidate school. And it was a great experience for me. The only thing is that we knew that during the Korean War you had to also come back alive to enjoy and implement all this leadership. And I had classmates who were also sent to different parts of Korea who we never saw again. It was -- and I began to think about Korea, and then Vietnam, and then I began to look that so many of our wars that were not necessary. And that -- I was in many of the organizations, the peace movements. They've always had a profound effect on me. The Japanese used to visit me in Congress [who] experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki and they would bring me these wonderful glass vases, in supporting the position that I took, that we should never go to war except as a last resort. I was deeply moved.
CONYERS: And this gets into the two other people that affected my philosophy, my political point of view, was Martin Luther King, Jr., and of course, Nelson Mandela.
BOND: I read some place that you had read King's speeches. You mentioned a moment ago that you'd been south and worked with the movement in the South. You read King's speeches. You got to know him. What effect did he have on you?
CONYERS: He was the most profound impact on my political philosophy of any human being.
King -- you know, I think we may not fully yet appreciate what the power of one man -- and you know the history because you were a part of it, too, and you saw even from where you were, that we had to do something profound. You remember that the civil rights leaders came to Martin and said, "Martin, please don't do this. We know you're going to get killed, but you're going to get us all destroyed. You'll destroy this beginning movement." And they pleaded, "You cannot have a non-violent movement to end segregation in the South." It didn't connect. And Martin had to form the Southern Christian Leadership Council. You had to go to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee because the young people there -- and people forget how young our leaders were then. Twenties and thirties. You met a forty-year-old man, we treated him with respect.
BOND: He was an old man.
CONYERS: He was one of the seniors! And so as I began to realize what Martin went through and to understand, and I read and studied and got to know the family and the little kids in the family. All that he went through, that his own government was trying not just to destroy the movement, but to destroy him, because they perceived if you could destroy King, the movement might shatter. And here was a guy that told you just before his end, "I've been to the mountaintop."
And Nelson Mandela. Now, look, twenty-seven years imprisonment is almost unthinkable in terms of us saying, "John -- " And there was no guarantee that he was going to ever be president of his country. He didn't say, "Well, when I get out, I've got a great political future." And he kept himself together. I mean, as a matter of fact, it may have made him stronger. And those two people and the people around them, because as you know, there were so many unsung people whose names will never go into the history books, who'll never be celebrated.
Oh yes, Fannie Lou Hamer, but there were other Fannie Lou Hamers. They were other Martin Kings. There were other Nelson Mandelas. Countless numbers. And I said, "You know, this is a lesson that one person -- and this goes back to "How tenacious are you about your ideas?" I mean, do you just go to the NAACP dinners and make a contribution and say, "Yes, I support the NAACP," and "Sure, I'm proud of the chairman of the board of the NAACP," and "it's a grand historic organization," or, how deep does it go?
And these two people -- and not just because they were people of color. It was because of the nature of their struggle, Julian, the nature of inner resolve and commitment that became the examples of my life. That I still hold. I've added, there're other people that I admire. There're other people in other cultures and other times in history who were obviously heroic. All that came out of the Reconstruction movement and post-Reconstruction and the first men of color that came to the Congress and the U.S. Senate. But here were two people that I knew and touched and lived with, talked with.
One of the things that I've already started working on after this election is to take -- and I hope that I can get you to join with me -- in leading a group of Americans that go to South Africa to pay their last respects to Nelson Mandela before he leaves this earth.
BOND: Oh, I'd love to go.
BOND: Let me jump back very quickly to Congressman [John] Dingell. Did you pick up anything from him? His style that later became part of your congressional persona? What did you learn from him? Now, this was a time, I'm guessing, you're not thinking about running for Congress yourself.
BOND: You're running for the state House or the Senate. What did you learn from Dingell that might translate into your future life?
CONYERS: First of all, I was learning the whole congressional political process at another level and beginning to understand our federal government. And I owe it to him because he was a generous employer, in that I was studying for my bar exams, and he even said, "If you want to start a practice on the side, you can't do it here, but I'll permit you to do it," which I did -- the short-lived firm of Conyers, Bell & Townsend. Both my partners became judges subsequently after I became a Congressman, but we were down at the other end of the block in an office. But Dingell had, and has, this tenacity which I never compared with King and Mandela, but you know, to persevere in the political system you have to want to be in it, and he has been in it. Of course, his father before him was a Congressman and so it made his transition a lot easier, but he was a very effective, and is, a member of Congress. He is now the dean of the Congress and ironically, I'm the number two person in seniority right after him although there is more than ten years difference between our periods of service.
BOND: I'm sorry I'm sort of jumping back and forth here, but I read something that your father said, he said, "My sons got a chance early to learn about the struggle. They didn't grow up with silver spoons in their mouths. They didn't know what it was to be socially prominent. They grew up with little people, and they have always staked their future with little people." Are those life lessons that you learned from him?
BOND: I mean, without him saying "stick to the little people." You just absorbed it from him?
CONYERS: Yes, he didn't have [to] -- it was all around us because there was all this kind of disparate suffering going on in the black community. He worked in the paint shop. They didn't have the -- you were inhaling those paint fumes. We now know that's -- and there was a lot of smoking going on. Health was not prominent, and many of the black workers, as is the case now, left this earth much quicker than their white counterparts.
There was a problem with police. Police brutality was an ugly thing then. I mean, when a policeman stopped you in Detroit you'd better forget that you're not down South somewhere because what could happen to you at the hands of a group. They had the Big Four, these long squad cars that would sit in the communities and break up kids that were -- the young people that were congregating, and there was often violence. During the riots, the police participated very one-sidedly in the riots. There was book written, The Algiers Motel -- John Hersey-- and I was interviewed extensively about it because I was right in there.
I got called down the Saturday night the riots started and on Sunday morning. We were trying to get people to disperse and I climbed up on top of the car with a bullhorn. They went and got me and more people were saying, "John, you better get out of here, you don't -- we're not kidding now." Because the police had thrown some women and men down a long stairway at an after-hours joint, a speakeasy, on 12th Street which had been paying the police all the time, and they decided for some reason to raid it. And they seriously injured people and then it just started growing and growing and growing. Then it erupted and, of course, the police weren't much help in it. Their violence created more violence.
So I did grow up that way. It's reflected in my legislative career because -- look, to me, health care, even if we had good education which we're still struggling toward -- we almost left all children behind in the Leave No Child Behind education law -- but your health care is something that you can learn what to do, and then you've got to have the health care facility. So I've been working with all these doctors, the National Medical Association of African American Physicians, and so, I got the Universal Health Care Bill in the nation, and we're working on it for everybody. And it's -- so, we just had Bianca Jagger in -- you always have to get celebrities now to promote, if you're really serious -- and so we, just this week, we had people coming in from seventeen different states, not only for health care but for toxic mold. Another problem we found out that one-third of our public schools are seriously in need of repair and many times much of the illness and inability to focus is coming from toxic mold beneath the walls that's sometimes not even visible, that can impair the learning problem. So health care has become a very important legislative goal for me.
BOND: And all this comes, you think, from your father's concerns? I remember reading some place of him reading about the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the newspaper?
CONYERS: 1939 -- yes, it was September 1, 1939.
BOND: And his imputing to you that this was a big event?
CONYERS: Yes. I remember that headline. It's funny what you remember and what you forget, you know, as the years pass, but September 1, 1939, Hitler invades. They used to do those headlines that really, in the old days, that would grab you, and my father explained to me that things will never be the same. And of course, Roosevelt -- there was a strong movement against us getting involved in European wars and Roosevelt was under a great deal of pressure and as it later turned out he was negotiating with England of how he could help them without us getting into war, and of course the Japanese made it easier for -- December 7th for him to declare war and eventually we got in, which was very important.
Now, the power of one person: Hitler was one of the most evil but determined people. You stop and think about -- how can a little landlocked European country which needs oil, and needs a seaport, needs everything-- how could they become a world threat? And through guile and cunning and a belief of racial superiority, Adolf Hitler is exactly the counterparts to King and Mandela. Here was a totally driven, right up until the end, even fought off mutinies within his own elite guard. But to me I keep seeing that lesson coming up time and time again. [Thurgood] Marshall in the Supreme Court and all those Howard University law professors who decided to bring this case, that nobody thought could possibly win, to the Supreme Court. In instance after instance in the business world, people who start off and they say, "Look, you can't make it." There's a John James Trucking Company now that's a hundreds of millions of dollar-business. The guy started off with he and his father and a truck, and this instance keeps coming to me in different forms and it started with my dad.
BOND: With your dad pointing out in some way or the other, that one person could make a difference, or giving you the lesson of perseverance?
CONYERS: He never sat me down as I am wont to do with my boys. He never sat me down and said, "Look, let me -- " He was this kind of father that -- "Here's the picture. here's Clarence Darrow." Here's a guy that could go into any courtroom, who was once a corporate lawyer himself and something happened that changed his life and he worked for the little guy. He represented this black doctor that had the temerity to --
BOND: Ossian Sweet.
CONYERS: The Sweet case.
BOND: I wondered if your father knew about Darrow from that?
CONYERS: No, he knew about Darrow from before that. No, he had studied Darrow all the way through, but that case made a huge impression on us and the fact that Clarence Darrow would take the case, but my father -- we had another instance. My father was at the Battle of the Overpass at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn where Ford -- and they had this historic picture. My father has more pictures up at Local 600 in Dearborn than he does at Chrysler because they have this picture of the Ford Motor Car people, and they had hired goons and gangsters to back them up, and they had baseball bats and here on the other side walking up was Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen, and other people and that was just before they turned loose -- and of course, all the police were working with the company. And this was bloody. People were killed and people were in homes for the rest of their lives. It was a very awful, ugly scene of violence, and they finally were able to organize. And they took other organizers and because there were a number of black workers -- it was a funny things about Ford. He was very patronizing. He wanted to pay his workers, he set the scale, but he didn't want unions. "I'll take care of you, but you cannot organize." And so they resisted the organizing more fiercely than they did with General Motors in Flint, or Chrysler in Detroit, but when they got to Ford, the Battle of the Overpass was something. You know, we were so happy that he didn't -- he came out unscathed.
BOND: Now, at some point in life, I've got to think that you began to think, "I am a leader. I've got these capabilities. I've got this perseverance." When did that happen to you?
CONYERS: There wasn't any point that it occurred.
BOND: I don't mean that a light bulb went off and you said, "Hey, I'm a leader," but at some point, you've got to realize that you have these capabilities, you have the perseverance, the drive, you've got the skills, you've got the training. At some point it has to all have come together.
CONYERS: Well, I don't want to resist the question because it's like, these things happen. As I ticked off these events that were turning points that could've changed my ultimate career -- please forgive me. This is not egotistical. I always felt I had leadership qualities. Not mammoth leadership qualities, but it never bothered me from the time I was in high school and these things, you begin to think about these things, it seemed to me that I did --
It reminds me of the story they tell of Dennis Archer -- and I tell this in kindness because Dennis is a good friend of mine -- is that Dennis came in a room where there were leaders and Dennis said, "You know, I want to be somebody, I want to do something. I can do this." And he was a little young skinny kid and they said, "Please."
And by analogy, Dennis wanted to do something. He was determined. It was his wife that talked him into going to law school. He was a school teacher and so was she. She became a lawyer and she wanted him to go, and he said, "Oh, okay, I'll go to Detroit College of Law at nights," and I don't know where this is going, but there was that spark. To me, that story illustrates Dennis and it seemed to me that we could do something. I felt I could do something. I didn't know what, and I never was afraid of stepping into the fray. I believed in the cause. I never really wanted to be a wealthy person. I was far more interested in -- and I was a history major, too. Professor Kelly, the chairman of the history department at Wayne University was one of the consultants on Brown v. the Board --
BOND: Alfred Kelly.
CONYERS: Al Kelly. I'm glad you remember his name because he was -- I was very struck by the fact that history -- and we get into this, does the incident create the leader? Or does the leader come forward and take advantage of the circumstance? -- and frequently it's a little bit of both it seems to me.
BOND: Let me ask you a question. What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style? Or do the three interact for you? Vision, philosophy, style.
CONYERS: I never thought about that before so -- first of all, to me, out of vision comes philosophy. Because at core bottom, every one of the 6.4 billion people that are said to be on the earth right now, no matter what language, no matter what culture, what race, what class, all of us can be stripped down to what is our philosophical -- "Here, you could put it here. Let's list it." Now, you could have a philosophy that may have a very narrow vision, but vision will determine your philosophy.
Then we add the ingredient of style. And style is all important. As we know, in government -- in life -- style is important. You're smart. You're articulate. You're intelligent. You're -- you bring your own persona. Style isn't something -- I don't consider it a negative, because the style is the thing that people see and there's two things --
When we meet a person coming toward us, Julian, there's only two things we can judge that person on if we don't know them: is how they look and how they talk. And to me, both of those combine to be style. Your style. You're wearing a spread-collar shirt with a Windsor knot. That's style. I mean, you didn't say I'm going to put on a -- there are, as you know, plenty of people, especially men, you know, who could care less about their attire. They have shirts, they have ties, they have suits. They dress. But style is what you bring to it. Not only in dress, but in the way you organize your objectives and the way you move forward. For example, for me, I've always -- my style is not to be worried about a formal bureaucratic structure of my office organization. Yes, there're titles and responsibility, but, to me, everybody that works with me is a part of my extended family. If I can't trust you to put in forty measly hours for the government, then I made a mistake. And what I believe in, is that if I forget about the fact that you are the computer operator and that you are the press secretary and you are at the front desk -- that we're all in this together and when the chips go down, we may have to do each other's jobs or we may have to be taken off something. And we don't want to say, "Well" -- and there are a lot of offices like this and they're not just government, in the private sector as well -- "No, I don't do that. That's not my MOS. This isn't my job description and I don't have to do that." That's a style. A lot of people like the way we operate over the several decades I've been here because I'm not worried about "I didn't see you this afternoon," because I believe you were doing something. I'll find out later but it doesn't bother me that you're not at your desk. Or if I want you, they'll say, "Well, he's at a meeting over on the Senate side about the court stripping bill," or, "She's somewhere else," and to me, that's a matter of style.
Another dimension of style that I think of with this question is, I believe that everything I'm doing should be maximally communicated to as many people as I can. I really believe a lot of people do things just to satisfy their constituency. Now, I don't know which category of the three in your question this falls into, but, you know, I think when I pass -- I introduce a bill. I introduce the Toxic Mold Bill. It isn't for the Democrats in the 14th Congressional District of Michigan or for some limited -- this is a national piece of legislation. When I advocate cost of living increases or living wage proposals as opposed to minimum wage, it's not for the black workers who need it. It's for everybody. And there are so many times I can recall where this philosophy, without me ever expecting it to, has held me in good stead because I legislate for the national good. And frequently, since we are the most powerful nation on the planet, we're sometimes legislating -- we're saying something to the rest of the world. We should have an assault weapons ban continue. That says something about the nation, to let it expire.
BOND: What about your vision? Has your vision changed over time? Has it been constant, so far as you can recall?
CONYERS: Actually, it's deepened and widened and gotten richer. It's been validated. And it's a wonderful thing. I'm not afraid of change, but there is one part of it that may be worth mentioning here and that is the fact that one of the things I see is that, notwithstanding all the turmoil and instability that exists, that we're much closer to a new day in America than many people can see. Barack Obama came out of nowhere. I can see a point in time where we'll have to decide between Senator John Edwards, Senator Hillary Clinton, and Senator Barack Obama.
When I go into the schools, like you still do with the youngsters, I ask people,"Now, who thinks they could be president of the United States?" Or sometimes I ask them, "Who thinks they could do a better job of being President than the present incumbent?" "Who would like to take my place in the Congress?" And I said, "Please don't raise your hand if you're not serious," I said, "that you're really thinking about it." And nothing makes me more proud, and I remember the instance very clearly. There were tuitions, one of the groups in Detroit were given tuitions. And two or three youngsters in a row, including girls, said "I want to be president of the United States," and I burst out into applause because you see the talking heads and The New York Times can't tell you when this is going to happen, but I see more and more working class people, who are not black, who begin to realize the inseparability ultimately of their condition and their black brothers' and sisters' condition, and until we realize that we've got to speak to everybody's needs -- a health care bill has got to apply to everybody. And there are enough of them now learning, sometimes at that their sorrow, that the choices you make will determine whether your kid gets a college degree, or will be qualified for a Pell Grant, or will get into a Head Start Program.
BOND: Let me ask you a question that you touched on a moment ago about how leaders are created, thrown up by movements, or create the movements themselves. Some people say it happens in one of three ways: great people cause great events, or movements make leaders, or the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for their times.
CONYERS: Well, that's easy. It's all three. Under different circumstances, I think historically I could come back and show you where a person is thrust into prominence that had no idea. Well, they called for this twenty-nine-year-old minister to come to Montgomery to help Rosa Parks. They needed somebody like this young fellow to keep them going. They weren't thinking about, "Well, we're now creating the greatest civil rights leader of the twentieth century." But as a matter of fact, as you know, Ralph Abernathy was the leader of the civil rights movement, but through the activities, it became clear to everybody, including Ralph, that here this new kid on the block, previously untested, is exactly what we need for these times. He became number two, and I like to think they did it with a minimum of acrimony.
BOND: In your own life, you come to Congress and within three years you're a sponsor of the Voting Rights Act, which arguably is the most significant legislation passed in the twentieth century. How'd you go from that, freshman, lucky enough to get this appointment from the Speaker to the Judiciary Committee, but how'd you go from that, to taking this role at a time when Congress, I'm guessing, was much more stratified, much more stratified, than it is today? And here you are taking on a leadership role just three years out.
CONYERS: Because I was on the committee that had jurisdiction of the bill. And of course, it was -- and I remember when Whitney [Young] and Martin [Luther King Jr.] and sleeping porters --
BOND: A. Philip Randolph.
CONYERS: A. Philip Randolph -- they all went to Lyndon, and Johnson said, "I can't support another civil rights bill for you all! Look, you guys -- " And they were insistent. They finally persuaded Lyndon Baines Johnson that right -- almost consecutively -- the two largest civil rights bills in our day would be taken up. There I was on the committee working as closely with them as I could. Right time. Right place. Right person.
BOND: Now, do you think your legitimacy as a leader is in your ability to persuade people that your point of view is the right point of view? And is that connected to your ability to articulate a kind of vision? Where does it come from in you? What's the grounding of this in you?
CONYERS: Julian, the first thing is your belief system. The second thing is tenacity, but the third thing is your analytical ability to persuade. Now, here's what I'm talking about. I keep asking myself this heartwrenching question. How can, within our lifetime, people who were threatened with death to try to vote, can now adopt the attitude that "My vote won't count," "It doesn't mean that much anymore" -- and I've got to figure out what it is. To me, that's a very important goal. I mean, when we have half the people in the country, of all colors, walking away from a franchise on which this constitutional democracy is based.
There is a clear opening and I see it important for me, to not only understand that dimension of the problem, but the other part of it is that, how can a working man and his family who are not African American align himself politically with people who have no concern for workers' well beings, whatever. When they move a plant, when they close down a foundry in Dearborn and move it overseas or to Mexico, they don't sit around and worry about "How many black workers will this affect?" or "How many white workers will this affect?" They say [to] all four-and-a-half thousand people, "Your job is ended."
And so I keep asking myself the other part of the first conundrum: How can I communicate to them that their best interest is not aligning themselves with conservative forces who show little disrespect? They'll take away a worker's overtime benefits. They don't say, "This is black workers' overtime benefits. We're going to take away everybody's overtime benefits. We're going to give you a prescription drug plan" -- which will in some cases be worse than the system we're trying to improve, because the drug company will be able to drop some prescription drugs at their will, but you are bound to stay in the plan for one year regardless of what they do.
So, I keep thinking about -- and the conservatives in Michigan gave me eight other cities of which there are very few African Americans just to see how this would work out -- and the amazing thing is, is that because of the way I've -- my philosophical view, I don't have to change when I go -- they're mostly working class people, not all, but I don't have to say, "Well -- " My legislative aide doesn't have to say, "Well, now you're here down river now, and you've got -- " When I take them my record which was not built with them in mind, they say, "Oh, you're for keeping jobs in America. You want a fair tax system, not one that benefits the wealthy disproportionate to working people. You're for a better public school system." And you can't make up your background, your history. And to me it validates my vision and my philosophy, so then I go deeper into it, and I'm trying to figure how I really get them to see that you got to -- your self interest requires that you support people who are going to govern in this way. And so those are the two challenges that confront me, even today as we speak.
BOND: How does race consciousness affect your work? I mean, race consciousness has to have been a part of your life from the moment you discovered that you belonged to a race, but how does it affect you today?
CONYERS: Well, it does affect me and has always affected me, and I'm not likely to see it change it soon. But, you know, to me -- I've had the kind of experiences that have led me to realize you cannot judge a book by its cover. You're in a room and you're looking at a guy and this guy is probably from Mississippi looking like a redneck and this guy probably never had a kind word to say about black people and their struggle in his life. And over here this lady looks like she's from New England and she's probably been a sympathetic -- I don't know about anybody else, but I can tell you, it doesn't work for me. I cannot -- I have people, and they come into my office and they write me and they e-mail me, and from places that I know I haven't been there to talk with them, and I know they don't know me personally, but they align themselves with my struggle. They congratulate me. They encourage me. They will tell me that they're not a person of color. And so it encourages me to keep reaching out. You know, there comes a point where you can be so insular that you forget that you've really got to go out here. And to me, that has become an increasing challenge in my life. When I bring somebody on my staff I need somebody, of course, that's sympathetic with my goals, but the color is really secondary because if you're on my team, I know we've gotten past the color question.
BOND: What about in your idea of who you are? Are you representing black people? You explained a moment ago how your district has changed and now you've got more people who aren't African Americans, and you're trying to formulate a program that appeals to anyone, no matter whom they are. But, at the same time, do you feel any special responsibility to represent African Americans?
CONYERS: Not only all the black people in America, but people of color throughout the world. You know, the condition of black Americans is just a reflection. Fifty-three countries in Africa which get a pittance of the great resources that we export to the rest of the world. It's so embarrassing. I just came up when I was coming back from a vote yesterday. There were several limousines full of Africans who had been to a meeting and I didn't know they were here, I was -- because I always like to -- if I don't do anything but go to their ambassador or to their leaders or their elected officials and just identify myself and shake their hand and let them know I'm a part of the Congressional Black Caucus. We're now finding people of color who were brought from Africa to Latin America in Brazil. We have the question of reparations. They're asking me about my reparations bill that languishes in the Congress since 1989. And we're planning an international meeting of all the activist scholars and lawyers on reparations around the world. One of the reasons that they didn't want it raised in Durban when the United Nations met on the question of racism was that there were so many other countries struggling with the concept, and I was astounded to meet people from South America and other places, who are asking about it. And that's where we decided that we had to make this global. And so the question of people of color in the globe now attracts my attention.
BOND: Is there divisiveness if you segment out a section of the population and say "This is my particular concern, this is my special interest"? Does that lead to divisiveness? Some people think so.
CONYERS: Well, first of all, it does. And I regret to say it, and you with your profound political background know that we're now having places in America where Hispanic and black political aspirations are colliding. And there's some sharp antagonism: "No, it's not your turn. It's our seat and you shouldn't be in this because we're going to be divided and neither of us will win." I've made -- I've taken special pains to develop, for example, the Hispanic community, which is growing in numbers, as we all know. I campaigned for Loretta Sanchez in her classic race which she confounded again the talking heads who didn't think she could win, but then I went back in when her sister, Linda Sánchez, ran in a part near Los Angeles, and here was Juanita Millender-McDonald and I campaigning for Linda Sánchez in just this little small part of her district that was African American, because we have to build up these bonds, we've got to get beyond race. And we can do that but not give up the cause. African Americans, statistically -- in every statistic -- we're always on the bottom. So I can't say that let's disregard that, so we've got do both. And we've got to find a way to do it that minimizes the friction that is almost inevitable in that kind of struggle.
BOND: Some people think there's a kind of crisis in black leadership today. Cornel West says part of the reason there is such a crisis is that the current crop of leaders are separated from the kinds of movements that used to produce leaders in African-American communities. Do you buy that?
CONYERS: I can't begin this without telling you how much I admire and love Cornel West. He's a piece of work. There's only one Cornel West on the planet. That may have some validity. I have not read his latest book which I have promised myself to do as soon as these next forty days are over with, but you know, when I look around, when we were starting out, many of us came out of a profound historic movement that is almost hardly ever going to be replicated like it was. And so that affected our consciousness profoundly. Now, we have people that are coming into leadership roles, both publicly and privately, for whom that is a part of history which they have no direct experience. And so I have to understand that they don't -- they can't swap stories. They don't have any basis of it. It was something read in a book. "1963 -- oh, I remember, I saw some television about that. It was, wow, all those people and wasn't that 'I Have a Dream' speech the greatest speech -- " But they don't really connect up. So one of the new challenges to leadership, Julian, is that it is -- it has now become easier to succeed without being committed to the struggle. Now, if that was what Cornel was getting at --
BOND: Yes, I think so.
CONYERS: -- then we're simpatico. But now you can succeed, you can make it now, if you have the determination, the ability, and are at the right place at the right time. And then you can hear people saying, I know what it does to you as it does to me, "I don't need anybody to help me, I made it on my own." Now, that has got to be the most misinformed statement that anybody of color can make in the twenty-first century. None of us made it on our own. None of us. And so I think that we have to remind people not that you can't live in the suburbs, or that you can't work in a company, a corporate company, but that you've got to bring the integrity to it. The Black Caucus is the conscience of the Congress. You've got to be the conscience of your corporation.
BOND: This is the last question and in some ways, I think the most difficult. How can we foster or create effective leaders for the future?
CONYERS: Well, first of all, I believe leaders are not born, that they can be made. So that I think this whole inquiry into leadership is very valid and very appropriate. Matter of fact, it's the first study of its kind that I know about, certainly the first that I've participated it, so I congratulate you and your co-chairman and the University itself for making this inquiry. But leadership, like public speaking, like athletic prowess, isn't something that you either have or you haven't. You may not have as much as you want, but you certainly -- it certainly is a developable skill. And I think that this kind of inquiry will cause lots of people, and hopefully young people, to look into themselves and say, "Oh, I didn't know all this about Julian Bond. I didn't know all of this about Cornel West. I didn't realize that some of these people didn't -- that Vernon Jordan didn't always have it made." And I think the course of our lives, the struggles that we personally had to undergo, can become the opportunities that opened up for me. People can see. You can look into that and see that some of these came to me and I was able to take advantage of them. An opportunity can come and hit you in the face, and you get up and walk by it. And so I think that leadership can be, and still can be inspired and can be developed, and I hope that that's what this series is doing.
BOND: I hope so. Thank you, Congressman Conyers, for being with us. We appreciate it. It's a pleasure.
CONYERS: My honor to be with you, Julian.
BOND: Thank you.