The "dean" of the House of Representatives is only a ceremonial role -- there's no salary bump, extra staff or security detail. But it's a special honor for Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who is now the longest active serving member of Congress and the first African American to earn the distinction.
Conyers, 85, reached 50 years in office this month, and he spoke with The Washington Post last week about his tenure, race relations, issues of law and justice, and his old friend and colleague, Martin Luther King Jr. Conyers was the first to propose a federal holiday for King just four days after his 1968 assassination.
A transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity, appears below:
O'Keefe: There's still a great amount of concern about what happened last year in Ferguson and New York and some hope that Republicans will take up those concerns this year. As someone who traces back to the civil rights movement, what do you make of what's transpired in the last few months?
Conyers: We’ve always had a very tense relationship between the African American community and police, law enforcement, particularly young African American males. And it’s gotten quite a bit of attention, not only from Ferguson, but also New York and other places as well. But the one thing I notice is that there’s tension being focused on racial police incidents, the use of police force than ever before. It isn’t that these kinds of events weren’t happening before. To me, this has caused us to examine this issue a lot more carefully than we ever have before.
O'Keefe: Why do you think it caught so much attention? It’s been a chronic issue, but why suddenly in the last few months?
Conyers: The nature of the circumstances that were taking place. Ferguson was a highly political sensitive area in which to everybody’s surprise it was predominantly African American, but no political leadership. And then you begin to find out that there wasn’t very much emphasis on voting and civic participation. There were three police officers out of 53 and one elected person on the council [who are black] and that’s it.
Immediately the question became, why is that and why aren’t they more energized? So that became more important. And it led to some larger questions that we’ve been wrestling with in the Judiciary Committee and the Congress and some of my civil rights organizations and that is the whole question of over criminalization. We have so many statutes. Ironically, in our country we incarcerate more people per population than anybody else. The questions of mandatory sentencing and especially where police violence is involved, where you get accusations of choke holds and police violence and racial profiling. All of those things has given the subject more attention and public scrutiny than ever before. You’ve had a lot of positive things and discussion coming out of it that had never existed before.
O'Keefe: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) outlined his agenda for the year and mentioned patent reform, copyright law, NSA and privacy. Eventually he mentioned overcriminalization and that the committee will discuss issues of police brutality once the Justice Department completes some reports on the subject. Do you really think Republicans understand how eager a large part of this country is to discuss these issues? Any idea how seriously they’ll address it?
Conyers: Well, considering the political circumstances that the Republican majority find themselves in, I think they’re less than eager to want to get into this. But I think like everything else, it’s sort of inevitable. You can’t get away from some of the questions that are being raised and the discussion going on. To me, there are only a few that are really ready to sit down and deal with these subjects in a way that would be responsible.
O'Keefe: Who are they?
Conyers: On the Republican side? Well, there’s Walter Jones of North Carolina – a person I chat with quite a bit. There are a few others that nobody leaps out at me, but some are more willing to engage in this kind of discussion. Jim Sensenbrenner, for example, from Wisconsin, a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee. We talk a lot about different things.
It’s an individual thing, but basically the Republicans who never fail to surprise me with the positions they take – they’re basically anti-immigrant, which effects huge numbers of people.
O'Keefe: You say you’re not surprised by some of the actions or opinions of Republicans. What did you make of the revelations surrounding Majority Whip Steve Scalise?
Conyers: Well, that’s this Republican attitude that they seem to move in the wrong direction more often than they ought to. I don’t know who the group was, I don’t know what he said, but this complete denial and almost cover-up of that is not very encouraging. It could be the subject of further action, but the damage is already been done. It’s not a matter of public understanding and knowledge, so what is it they’re trying to prove?
There’s very little that they can do to shock me, but I am disappointed that we can’t sometimes be more candid about these issues and try to move forward a little more quickly than we really are. But at least we’re going in the right direction.
O'Keefe: Do you think that it’s just that Republicans are concerned that the more they talk about it, the more they’ll say the wrong thing? Or is it total disregard for the issue?
Conyers: Some of them can’t help but say the wrong thing the more they talk. It’s a matter of them trying to get past it in a sometimes awkward or clumsy way.
A lot of this – and O’Connell [Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell] has been a master of putting it on the table: We’ve got to stop this president – this African American president – in every way that we can. In little and big ways – even when he agrees with us. We don’t have to go along with him. I think that the Obama factor plays a large role in some of the positions and some of the results that we see coming off of this.
O'Keefe: You mean the fact that he’s black?
Conyers: Exactly. His color – although he’s been a master at proving race relations, sometimes his own African American leadership wants him to do more or say something else, but I realize that he’s speaking as not just as the president of the United States, but as the single-most powerful leader on the planet. Fortunately, he’s an excellent orator, he thinks carefully, he doesn’t move hastily, he’s not frequently retracting what he’s saying, he makes a very good impression on people who are willing to look at him fairly.
O'Keefe: You’ve been here longer than anyone, you’re a veteran legislator, and you know that one of the biggest knocks on Obama’s presidency is that he hasn’t engaged enough with Congress. Is that a valid criticism?
Conyers: I haven’t ever taken it that seriously – he was just meeting with Republicans at the White House.
O'Keefe: Yeah, but he doesn’t pick up the phone and call lawmakers individually. He doesn’t go golfing with them, he doesn’t cultivate these guys socially, he doesn’t do that.
Conyers: You know, I can’t tell you whether I think he should do that more. I probably wouldn’t mind him doing it more. But I don’t think that’s what has been his problem. His problem is O’Connell [McConnell], now the Senate leader said, "We’ve got to stop this guy. We can’t have him staying any longer than necessary." And I don’t think cordiality and social gatherings are going to help that that much. It is true that he is not as gregarious say as Bill Clinton, but few other presidents were, either.
O'Keefe: The Voting Rights Act -- the Supreme Court has chipped away at it, and I know you were quite pained to see that happen. But can Democrats really work with Republicans to fix the law?
Conyers: Oh yeah, we’ve got to, because without repairing the criticisms of the Supreme Court, we would be leaving states who obviously have a long way to go in terms of civil rights and voting opportunities – they’d be behind the eight ball. There’d be no way for us to put preliminary requirements on those who really deserve them.
The Supreme Court kind of threw us a curveball on that, but look, that’s happened before. What we’ve got to do – that’s a new, big issue. During my career, we’ve had one where there was flat-out segregation and there was a fairly sizable school of members of Congress who believed in segregation and did not see it as a constitutional or legal problem in any respect. Now that doesn’t exist anymore. We still have lots of problems, but through our civil rights organizations and others, the American Civil Liberties Union and other guardians of constitutional rights and scholars – legal scholars as well as individuals of prominence who are moving forward, we’re moving in a new direction.
We have new challenges now. In this age of cyber technology, of computerization, of drones, the ability to commit ourselves to national, local, international military activity is much easier now than it used to be. Unless we’re dealing with that, there’s no way we can make the nation and the nations of the worlds, the peoples on the planet safer. So we have this super-technology that’s making it easier to commit violence. The weapons of yesteryear were ancient and it’s not that way anymore.
O'Keefe: There was some confusion about your reelection last year – what are your plans for 2016?
Conyers: The reason I think I’m going to run again is that I’ve never thought about stepping aside. I still enjoy my work. There’s still plenty of challenges, new ones arising and it’s kind of nice to work in an area that you were born in, my father was an international representative for the United Automobile Workers, my brother was with a distinguished law firm. It’s really not hard for me running for office. So I am very much interested in these challenges and the biggest one of all is trying to understand what it takes to motivate people to participate in the political process.
O'Keefe: You were the first to propose the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday?
Conyers: Oh yes. I was going south as a lawyer and helping out all my friends, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Martin King and his family. I felt the civil rights movement was a powerful chapter in American history, that it was obligatory that I participate in it. So King, to me, is the outstanding international leader of the 20th century without ever holding office. What he did – I doubt anyone else could have done. And he advanced us forward even though there was a terrible loss of life and injustice and violence. But Martin Luther King Jr. moved us in a way that changed history. It’s out of my respect for him that I still think that his thinking, his writing and his activity – his leadership. It’s one thing to be a scholar, it’s another thing to be a leader and Martin somehow combined those attributes.
O'Keefe: Do Americans sufficiently celebrate the holiday?
Conyers: Yes. I am so pleased the way that the King Holiday – as opposed to some, which are just an opportunity for a day off or a vacation – but King is still studied, honored, remembered and the holiday is still meaningful. It is not just another day that you have to go to work.