Four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a junior member of Congress introduced a bill to establish a federal holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader.
Five decades later, the holiday is on the calendar, and that lawmaker, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), is now the longest-serving member of Congress.
Monday presents a unique bit of historical symmetry for Conyers, who marked 50 years in Congress this month. Both his longevity and the holiday are testaments and byproducts of the civil rights struggles led by King. For the first time, the 85-year-old will observe the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday as dean of the House, the ceremonial title for the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives.
“To me, [King] is the outstanding international leader of the 20th century without ever holding office. What he did — I doubt anyone else could have done,” he said.
An Army veteran and lawyer by training, Conyers worked with King and other civil rights activists in the South before coming to Congress. While many Americans are filling theaters to see the Oscar-nominated movie “Selma,” Conyers can recall his own visits to the Alabama town in the months preceding the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march.
After a series of deadly police confrontations that left black men dead in Missouri and New York, a new generation of Americans is mobilizing around concerns about issues of law and justice. Conyers said these new battles mirror the struggles that propelled him into public life.
Issues of justice and equality remain top-of-mind for Conyers, one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus and the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
“We’ve always had a very tense relationship between the African-American community and police, law enforcement, particularly young African American males,” he said.
“The one thing I notice is that there’s more attention being focused on racial police incidents, the use of police force than ever before,” he added. “It isn’t that these kinds of events weren’t happening before.”
The deaths of Michael Brown, who was killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, and Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by a New York police officer, have compelled Republicans to engage on an issue they rarely discuss publicly. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said late last year that he expected his caucus to continue exploring “unanswered questions” in the wake of the two men’s deaths.
“I do think that the American people deserve more answers about what really happened here and was our system of justice handled properly,” he said at the time.
Conyers said that Boehner’s remarks contrast sharply with the Congress he joined in 1965. Then, he was one of only five African Americans in office. Now, there are 48.
“We’ve gone from 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,” he said.
But he’s disturbed by how other Republicans talk about race. He’s not surprised by the news that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) once spoke to a white supremacist group while serving in the Louisiana legislature. Scalise apologized and has distanced himself from the group, and other GOP leaders are eager to move on.
“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,” Conyers said.
Conyers wants Congress to have a candid conversation about race but says he can find few Republicans willing to engage him.
“Considering the political circumstances that the Republican majority find themselves in, I think they’re less than eager to want to get into this,” he added. “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.”
Conyers and House Democrats plan to spend this year drawing attention to ongoing concerns with voting rights after the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The court struck down sections of the law dealing with the special scrutiny imposed on states with a history of discrimination, compelling Congress to come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to the law.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said last week that he sees no need to revamp the law — yet another sign of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats.
“We have not seen a process forward that is necessary to protect people because we think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection in this area right now,” Goodlatte said at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Conyers is undeterred.
“The Supreme Court kind of threw us a curveball on that, but look, that’s happened before,” he said. The court’s decision makes voting rights “a new, big issue,” he said. But, he said, people should be mindful that things have been much worse.
A petition dispute nearly kept Conyers off the ballot last year, but he prevailed in court and earned nearly 80 percent of the vote on Election Day. Despite younger challengers eager for the seat and his advancing age, he’s preparing to run again in 2016.
“The reason I think I’m going to run again is that I’ve never thought about stepping aside,” he said. “I still enjoy my work. There’s still plenty of challenges, new ones arising.”
He’s especially worried about the nation’s growing dependency on technology.
“In this age of cybertechnology, of computerization, of drones, the ability to commit ourselves to national, local, international military activity is much easier now than it used to be,” he said. “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. We have this super-technology that’s making it easier to commit violence.”
Conyers is one of seven men — all of them Democrats — to serve in Congress at least 50 years, and he relishes the irony in succeeding his former boss, former congressman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), as the chamber’s longest-serving member. Conyers was once a Dingell staffer, and their fathers were close.
Dingell was the last member of Congress elected in the 1950s. Conyers is the last current member of Congress to have been elected in the 1960s. His next-nearest colleague is Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who came to Congress in 1971.
Conyers introduced the bill proposing the King holiday on April 8, 1968 — four days after King was killed. Ronald Reagan didn’t sign the law making it a federal holiday until 1983.
Many Americans use the three-day weekend for ski trips or beach vacations, and many businesses discreetly mark down prices to draw in shoppers. Conyers will celebrate at a series of events in his district. He’s heartened that the holiday is so widely observed.
“King is still studied, honored, remembered, and the holiday is still meaningful,” he said. “It is not just another day that you have to go to work.”