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Champion Of Civil Rights, Ex-Rep. John Conyers Dies At 90

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

John Conyers has died. He served more than 50 years in Congress from 1965 to 2017, which is to say from the civil rights era to the #MeToo era. He retired amid allegations of sexual harassment, though on the occasion of his death at age 90, supporters of the Michigan lawmaker are recalling his earlier legacy. Here's Quinn Klinefelter of our member station WDET.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: At a rally for Bernie Sanders yesterday in Detroit, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib paid tribute to a man she called the city's forever congressman - John Conyers.

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RASHIDA TLAIB: He never once wavered in fighting for us. He stood on issues of equality and civil rights for our people. He served us and fought for us for over 50 years.

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KLINEFELTER: Conyers championed both the civil rights movement and people living in poverty. When rioting gripped Detroit in 1967, Conyers told the city's NBC affiliate he believed the violence stemmed from frustration among what he termed the economic have-nots.

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JOHN CONYERS: The intense sniper activity and the fires that were started, they're the people who - that see that the only way - they had nothing more to lose than they had to gain.

KLINEFELTER: Conyers introduced the first legislation to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a federal holiday. He helped found the Congressional Black Caucus. He also championed creating a single-payer health care system. While making what became his last bid for Congress in 2016, Conyers said pursuing a progressive agenda drew voters to him.

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CONYERS: Well, because I support the issues that have been most ignored or neglected or feared in the federal legislature.

STEVE COHEN: He was Bernie Sanders before there was Bernie Sanders.

KLINEFELTER: Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen says he was a freshman legislator when he served on a committee chaired by Conyers and saw firsthand the clout the Detroit Democrat had accumulated.

COHEN: The bill that I guess I was most proud of passing was an apology for slavery and Jim Crow, and that would not have had a chance to even be heard, let alone pass, if it weren't for John Conyers.

KLINEFELTER: But by the end of 2017, Conyers was caught up in a House ethics investigation into multiple allegations of sexual harassment. He was urged to resign. Instead, Conyers told Detroit radio station WPZR he was retiring, without admitting any wrongdoing.

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CONYERS: My legacy can't be compromised or diminished in any way by what we're going through now. This too shall pass.

KLINEFELTER: Conyers left the political stage having served longer than any other African American in the history of Congress.

For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.