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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
Memories of Brown v. Board of Education
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.