Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

A Trip to the White House & an Effect of the Civil Rights Act

CONYERS: A thing happened there when John F. Kennedy -- the first time I got to the White House, he was forming the Organization for Lawyers -- Lawyers Under Law for Civil Rights. And they had this huge -- it was bipartisan. I remember I saw former Attorney General Rogers, the Republican. I'm in the White House. There were all the senators and congressmen. Senator Pat McNamara said that "I can send three people from Michigan to go to this historic formation of this organization," and he picked me, he picked a lawyer named Damon J. Keith, and he picked a lawyer named George W. Crockett. And all three of us went there for this wonderful day. We took pictures in the Rose Garden. I mean, it was my first visit to the White House. It was the first President I'd ever met, and all of this was building up my political spirit of government service, and was kind of pointing toward Congress. So I was looking for this opportunity.

Then we get a district, and it's the district that we had hoped for. And of course, by that time, when people realized that there could be a district in which an African American started running, boy, they came in. I think there were thirteen people running in the Democratic primary alone, plus others. And we'd go to Dick Austin -- Bob Millender would go to Dick Austin and say, "Dick, we know they're trying to get you to run." And Austin says, "No, I'm not going to run." And then finally Austin was saying, "Well, they're putting a lot of pressure on me." And finally, he had to get in the race. And you know I won by a hundred and twenty-eight votes.

Here again, fortune entered into my career. I'm not ashamed to say I'm one of the most fortunate people on the planet -- the newspapers were on strike. The Detroit Times, The Detroit Free Press, and The Detroit News were all on strike -- because I would not have been the one that they would've chosen. I don't know who they would've chosen, but there wasn't -- nobody was worried about that it would've been me. Nobody was saying "I wish the press was going, John, so you could get the endorsement." And they were on strike. And so, here it is.

Then I come to Congress and there's Speaker John McCormack. I go to the Speaker's office and report in. He says, "Well, son, we're glad to see you and we're proud that you're coming in." This was the year that we had more Democrats than any, [Thomas] Foley came in, oh, we had huge numbers of Democrats -- "Where would you like to serve?" "Well, Mr. Speaker, there's never been an African American on the Judiciary Committee in our history. I'd like to serve on that." He says, "Well, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths has already selected Bill Ford who'd come in with you who's not only a lawyer, Conyers, but he's a justice of the peace and he wants that committee and she wants him to be -- Ways & Means member selects who goes to committee. I said, "Well, in all fairness, sir, Billy Ford and I are very good friends, but I think this is the moment in history with civil rights, and the questions of voter laws that are all coming up." Remember, this is 1965 --

BOND: Right.

CONYERS: We'd just passed the Civil Rights Act and the civil rights people wanted Lyndon to consider the Voter Rights Act which he was very reluctant. He said, "Look, we just did this." So he said, "You're right." He picked up the phone. "Wilbur," he said, "I'm sending over Conyers and I want him to go on the Judiciary Committee." And Wilbur got me --

BOND: Wilbur Mills.

CONYERS: Yeah. And Martha Griffiths did not speak to me for a long time.

BOND: I bet.