Nation says goodbye to noted Civil Rights leaders Conyers, Cummings

John Conyers Jr. May 16, 1929 – October 27, 2019

Alexander Ruivivar ’20, Features Editor

Elijah Cummings, a Democratic congressman from Maryland who gained national attention for his principled stands on politically charged issues in the House, his calming effect on anti-police riots in Baltimore, and his opposition to the presidency of Donald Trump, died Oct 17. He was 68.

English teacher Michael Vezzali-Pascual ’88 said, “I think he was an important voice in this country, especially in this current political climate. When the city of Baltimore was attacked by the President of the United States, he vociferously defended the city and the people.”

The cause was “complications concerning long-standing health challenges,” his office said in a statement. He was chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and a leading figure in the Trump impeachment inquiry. Cummings was born into a family of sharecroppers and Baptist preachers and grew up in a racially segregated Baltimore during the 50s and 60s. When he was 11 years old, he helped integrate a local swimming pool, but was attacked with bottles and rocks. The fictional defense lawyer “Perry Mason” inspired him to enter the legal profession.

In the Maryland House of Delegates, he became the youngest chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and the first African American to serve as speaker pro term.

In 1996, he won the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cummings eventually served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Vezzali-Pascual said, “Elijah Cummings did a lot in his career for a lot of people, especially the people of Baltimore. He was very involved in his civil rights movement and a very influential leader in Congress.

He drew national attention as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief defender during 2015 congressional hearings into her handling of the attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

Elijah Cumming’s legacy lives on with his supporters, including his wife.

Vezzali-Pascual said, “I know his wife is interested in running for his seat. I think they have to continue to come together and to look for leaders like that.”

Another influential African American politician just died.

John Conyers Jr. died at the age of 90 on Oct. 27, 2019. He represented the state of Michigan in Congress for five decades.

Vezzali added, “I think he was unique because he lived through a lot of different eras. He was a member of the army in the Korean War. He was also very involved in the Civil Rights Movement and involved in legislation to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, but also fighting for the people of Western Detroit. So I think he was very influential.”

Conyers was the longest- serving African American lawmaker in congressional history, a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and a fierce champion for civil rights. However, he left his office at the age of 88 amid allegations of sexual harassment.

Conyers was first elected to office in 1964. Among his main efforts in Congress was his battle for civil rights for African Americans. In 1989, he introduced a bill that called for a “congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations ‘for appropriate remedies’.”

He was also one of the leading initiatives to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday. Four days after King was assassinated, Conyers introduced a bill to establish the holiday in his honor.

His time in office earned him the title “dean of the House of Representatives,” but in 2017, he resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Conyers was born in Detroit in 1929 and attended Detroit public schools before attending Wayne State University and Law School. He served in the Michigan National Guard and then the US Army from 1950 to 1954. He then worked in the office of Congressman John Dingell and then as a general counselor to labor unions before running for office himself.

Conyers is survived by his wife, brother, and two sons, and many feel that he should be honored.

Vezzali said, “I think the best thing that people could do to honor him would be to mention him and certainly the people that are representing their districts. Put their names and places of honor around the US Capitol and in their home districts.”

Both Elijah Cummings and John Conyers Jr. were instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement, and they will be missed.