William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

Former Michigan politician John Conyers Jr. fought for civil rights for all but stirred up controversy in the Jewish community.

On Oct. 27, 2019, another famous Michigan politician, John Conyers Jr., passed away. Conyers was the longest serving African American Congressman in history. His career began in 1964, when he was one of only six black house members, and it lasted 53 years. This is a remarkable run by anyone’s standards, only surpassed in Michigan by his colleague and friend John Dingell, who was a congressman for 59 years — longer than anyone in American history.

The funeral for Conyers was held at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit Nov. 5, and it was attended by some of the most prominent members of society from Michigan and America. Those making remarks included Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, former Detroit Piston Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas, Rep. Debbie Dingell and Motown legend Stevie Wonder, to name just a few of the speakers and dignitaries in attendance.

On the whole, Conyers left a very positive legacy. It can be said that he was a stalwart for civil rights and health care. Conyers was also the key congressman behind the legislation that led, after 15 years, to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1983. It is also a truism that Conyers was devoted to Detroit and Michigan. Of course, it must be noted that he did leave office two years ago with a bit of a cloud over his head.

On the whole, it can be argued that Conyers did a lot of good for a lot of people. Certainly, to the African American population of Detroit, he was a bona fide, first-class hero.

Of course, I was interested in Conyers’ interactions with Metro Detroit’s and Michigan’s Jewish community. So, I explored the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History.

Conyers first appeared in the Oct. 3, 1964, issue of the JN when he was running for Congress. He said he supported “all-out aid for Israel.” Indeed, regarding Israel, in the 1960s and 1970s, many JN articles cite his unqualified support of Israel.

Conyers also often appeared and/or spoke at many Jewish organizations such as a Jewish Community Council’s panel on the urban crisis in 1967. He was applauded in the Dec. 19, 1980, issue of the JN after he ordered a bigot removed from a congressional hearing. As recently as 2015, Conyers attended the JCRC’s Congressional Breakfast. One of his chief aides for many years, Larry Horwitz, was Jewish, and another Jew, Harold Shapiro, mentored Conyers and supported his political campaigns.

However, some of Conyers’ actions were controversial. On May 16, 2013, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan spoke in Detroit, spouting his hate at a church in Detroit. Conyers, along with others, sat in the crowd listening to Farrakhan speak of “satanic Jews.” A bit late, Conyers issued a strong rebuke of Farrakhan, but why was he there in the first place?

An article in the Dec. 2, 1988, article in the JN about Conyers was titled: “Friend or Foe.” It noted that Conyers was often at odds with Detroit Jews over issues related to the Middle East. Over the years, he voted against foreign aid bills that included aid to Israel and opposed the closing of the PLO’s office in Washington. The article also drew another conclusion: Conyers was a maverick.

It might be said that Conyers’ legacy is typical of many prominent leaders: They are human with strengths and weaknesses. So, there is a lot of good in Conyers’ work with Jews and some questions regarding his decisions. He was, however, consistent in one major regard: Conyers zealously fought for civil rights for all.

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

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