Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Military Service as a Political Inspiration

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 --