Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Learning to Persevere in the Face of the Black Struggle

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.