Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Parents Set Examples with Union Activism

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."