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Rest in Power, John Conyers

By Jeanne Theoharis

John Conyers

Since John Conyers’ death at the age of ninety on October 27, many have extolled his leadership in Congress on reparations, his indefatigable fight to get a national holiday for Martin Luther King, and his clarion voice for police oversight. But he also should be remembered for ending a decade of suffering for Rosa Parks and her family.

Five weeks after her courageous bus stand, Rosa Parks lost her job at Montgomery Fair; shortly after, her husband Raymond was forced to give up his job. They never found steady work in Montgomery again. Eight months after the boycott’s successful end, still facing death threats and unable to find work, the Parks family moved to Detroit where Rosa’s brother Sylvester and cousins lived. The Parks family continued to struggle in Detroit to find a steady job or decent affordable housing. In 1959, they moved into a two-room apartment to serve as building caretakers for the Progressive Civic League—their income tax records speak to the poverty of that year. The Parks registered only $661 of annual income. (By contrast, the Parks had registered $3,749 in annual income in 1955, the year of her arrest; the Parks were certainly not well-off then: she worked as an assistant tailor in the men’s shop at Montgomery Fair while Raymond barbered at Maxwell Airforce Base, and they lived, along with her mother, in an apartment in the Cleveland Courts Projects.) In 1961, Rosa Parks finally got a job doing piecework for Stockton Sewing Company, a glorified sweatshop; the work was grueling, and she typically worked ten hours a day.   

Rosa Parks had continued her activism in the “Northern promised land that wasn’t”—finding “not too much difference” in the systems of school and housing segregation, job discrimination, and police brutality in Detroit from what they’d left in Montgomery. In 1964, she volunteered on Conyers’ upstart campaign for Congress. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1962 in Baker v Carr that urban voters were dramatically undercounted through the ways Congressional districts had been drawn (a key form of Northern Black voter disfranchisement). The Court called for the redrawing of those maps—leading to a new Michigan Congressional First District that seemed poised to send a second Black representative to Congress (Charles Diggs represented Detroit’s east side). 

It was a crowded primary, and the thirty-five-year-old civil rights lawyer was a longshot. His “jobs, justice, and peace” platform appealed to Parks. Appreciating his work on behalf of the Southern civil rights movement, she—like Conyers—was an early opponent to US intervention in Vietnam and a lifelong labor supporter. She began attending campaign meetings, not saying much but willing to do various campaign tasks. “Everyone was frozen in their tracks,” Conyers recalled. “Rosa Parks is supporting Conyers.” Many had tried to get Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Detroit on Conyers’ behalf (King had purposefully chosen to stay away from any political races), but Conyers credited Parks as the decisive factor in convincing King to come.

Conyers was seen as more progressive and more independent, making him the choice of many politically-minded Black people like Rosa Parks, and backed, according to the Los Angeles Sentinel, with the “largest volunteer organization ever seen in Michigan.” In September, Conyers won the Democratic primary in a field of eight candidates by a slim margin. It went to a recount, and Conyers emerged the victor by only 43 votes. He won the general election handily, becoming the sixth Black person in the House of Representatives and the first to serve on the House Judiciary Committee.

One of the first things he did after being elected, in March 1965, was to hire Parks for a position doing constituent work and office support in his Detroit office—her first paid political job after more than two decades of activism.

The health insurance was precious. Parks had developed ulcers during the boycott that had landed her in the hospital in 1959 (with a bill she could not pay). After a year of work for Conyers, the Parks family finally registered an annual income on their 1966 taxes comparable to the year of her arrest. Longtime freedom fighter Mabel Williams (wife of Robert Williams) recalled talking to Parks about the “hard, hard times” the family encountered and how if it had not been for John Conyers they might have perished. “John was a real hero to me and other who knew [what he did].”

The decision to hire Parks was politically savvy, according to Conyers aide Larry Horwitz. Parks was “a presence. John gave her a job and economic security. She gave John prestige and stature. When he was very junior, after a bitterly divided primary, he needed this.” Over the years, her position became more ceremonial (particularly after Raymond got sick and died in 1977), but in the first years, Parks served as Conyers surrogate in the city, doing community work, keeping a pulse on the most pressing issues and demonstrating the congressman’s commitment to community struggle. 

It was also controversial. The office got a river of hate mail and calls criticizing the Congressman for hiring a “traitor.” People sent rotten watermelons, voodoo dolls, and hateful cards and letters to the office calling her an “evil woman” and “troublemaker.” Conyers aide Leon Atchison said the calls were “quite threatening,” but Rosa Parks would listen and say “have a nice day… She was cool—and didn’t seem stressed about it.”

As Black Power grew across the city and the country, Parks took part in many meetings, actions, conferences and mobilizations. Calling her “a true activist,” Conyers recalled the variety of issues Parks was involved in, particularly “ones that didn’t get the media attention.” She was so busy that at one point she went to Congressman to suggest he reduce her wages since she was away so much. “The only wage reduction conversation I’ve ever had,” Conyers said he scoffed at the idea, telling her he was honored by all the speaking and traveling she doing on behalf of the Black freedom struggle. 

Rosa Parks worked for Conyers till she retired in 1988. She described her work for him as “one of the highlights” of her life. Rest in power, John Conyers.


About the Author 

Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneTheoharis and visit the Rosa Parks biography website.