Great Lakes Moment: U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., civil rights champion and supporter of clean environment for all

Great Lakes Moment: U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., civil rights champion and supporter of clean environment for all
December 2, 2019 John Hartig
Photo by Detroit Riverfront Conservancy

Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television.

Most people remember John Conyers Jr. as a civil and human rights champion.

Conyers was the longest-serving African American member of Congress in U.S. history, the co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, a co-sponsor of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the first African American to chair the Judiciary Committee and a congressman who helped lead a 15-year struggle to create a national holiday in the name of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He passed away on Oct. 27 at the age of 90.

Photo by U.S. Congress via wikimedia Public domain

John Conyers, member of the United States House of Representatives, Photo by U.S. Congress via wikimedia Public domain

Indeed, Conyers was revered by many for championing civil rights, hiring civil rights activist Rosa Parks—who worked in his Detroit office for 20 years—and for long-championing Medicare for All. There is no doubt that Conyers touched many lives across the country and around the world through his efforts to protect civil and human rights.

But less known are his long-standing efforts to protect the environment for all.

During his 53-year career as a lawmaker, he co-sponsored 228 bills on environmental protection and 249 bills on protection of public lands and natural resources. He was an original co-sponsor of the Clean Water Act—one of the most important and far-reaching environmental statutes ever passed by the U.S. Congress.

Other examples of environmental and conservation laws co-sponsored by Conyers include: the Michigan Wilderness Act of 1987, the Michigan Scenic Rivers Act of 1991 and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act of 2001.

In a 2016 interview with Food & Water Watch in Washington, D.C., Conyers noted:

“Decades of underinvestment have made water a luxury for far too many. We have seen the repercussions of inaction in places like Flint and Washington, D.C. where children were poisoned by lead; and in Detroit, where decades of delayed maintenance have led to widespread water shutoffs. I introduced the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act because our children, families and communities deserve access to clean, safe drinking water and that starts with making the proper investments in our critical water infrastructure.”

John Conyers supported efforts to help secure federal funding for the Detroit RiverWalk and ensure that it would be a gathering place for all. He also enjoyed engaging with children including in the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s summer literacy program, Reading & Rhythm on the Riverfront.

John Conyers not only supported the late Rep. John Dingell in his efforts to legislatively create the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, but helped secure early funding for cleanup of an industrial brownfield site that has today become the gateway to the international wildlife refuge and the home of the refuge’s visitor center that will open in the spring of 2020.

Photo by Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

Congressmen John Conyers and John Dingell and Senator Carl Levin release lake whitefish into the Detroit River, 2006 , Photo by Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

In 2006, Rep. John Conyers, Rep. John Dingell and Sen. Carl Levin celebrated the spawning of lake whitefish in the Detroit River for the first time since 1916 in a public event for school children. In 2007, Conyers and Dingell celebrated a new wildlife observation deck at the refuge’s Humbug Marsh – the last mile of natural shoreline on the U.S. mainland of the Detroit River and the cornerstone of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

Conyers always cared deeply about engaging children in environmental protection and natural resource conservation, all part of his belief in human rights for all.

It was an honor for me to know and work with Rep. John Conyers on environmental and conservation issues in metropolitan Detroit for over 20 years.

It has been often said that Rep. John Conyers fought with vigor and empathy for people who were left out and left behind. This included children and providing for them a clean, healthy and safe environment essential to fulfill human aspirations and to live with dignity.

Featured Image: Congressman John Conyers participates in Reading and Rhythm for children on the Detroit RiverWalk, 2015, Photo by Detroit Riverfront Conservancy

Great Lakes Now contributor John Hartig is a board member at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. He serves as the Great Lakes Science-Policy Advisor for the International Association for Great Lakes Research and has written numerous books and publications on the environment and the Great Lakes. Hartig also helped create the Detroit River International Refuge, where he worked as the refuge manager until his retirement.


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