Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Parents Weigh in Differently About Political Changes

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.

CONYERS: Exactly.

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.