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Wayne Law celebrates donation of Congressman John Conyers' papers

July 21, 2014

DETROIT – Some of the titans of American civil rights legal history gathered Friday, July 18, at Wayne State University Law School to celebrate the donation of U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s personal papers.

Before the ceremony began, civil rights icon Judge Damon J. Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and a 1956 Wayne Law master of laws alumnus was greeted with hugs and handshakes from the men and women arriving at the event. A glow of camaraderie suffused the room, and excitement built, as old friends dedicated to a common cause gathered and awaited the arrival of the congressman being honored.

Conyers, D-Mich., a 1958 Wayne Law alumnus who has served in Congress for nearly 50 years, was greeted by applause and the clicks and whirrs of media cameras when he walked, beaming, into the room.

The Detroit lawmaker is donating his personal papers to the archives of the Damon J. Keith Collection of African-American Legal History. The collection is part of Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library.

Savala Nolan, director of the collection, greeted those gathered and told them that the Keith Collection is the nation’s first and only collection of African-American legal history.

“This community and this country need the collection,” said Nolan, a former law clerk for Keith. “African-American history is legal history.”

She thanked Conyers for his donation and for his lifelong passion in serving the people of the community.

Virginia Thomas, interim director of the Reuther Library and director of the Arthur Neef Law Library at Wayne Law, spoke of how proud she was to be at the event among so many champions of social justice and to be able to help preserve some of that legacy through Conyers’ papers.

“Congressman Conyers has created quite an extensive legacy of his own,” she said.

Wayne Law Dean Jocelyn Benson, a former law clerk for Keith and a civil rights law expert, told Conyers how honored the law school is to be able to house his papers in the collection named after the judge, who is a longtime friend of the congressman’s.

“We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” Benson said.

She spoke of the law school’s dedication to making sure the next generation knows of the struggle and of what was accomplished by Conyers, Keith and other legal giants of the nation’s civil rights movement.

Debbie Dingell, chair of the Wayne State University Board of Governors and wife of retiring U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., told of how Conyers once worked for her husband when he was a young legislator before Conyers himself ran for office. When John Dingell leaves office this year at the end of his term, Conyers will take his place as the oldest-serving member of Congress, she said.

She spoke of being part of a conversation once between Conyers, Keith, her husband, U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn (also present at the Wayne Law event) and others when the men began to reminisce about the 1950s and ’60s, and of how awed she was to hear their stories.

“They just fought for what was right,” she said. “They were fighting for equality for all.”

Conyers’ papers, she said, are a vital part of the nation’s history, and as part of the Keith Collection, will help educate those who follow for centuries to come.

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson spoke of how his children and others in their generation don’t truly understand the challenges that Conyers, Keith and others of their era struggled to overcome and make right.

“We have to continue to make sure that people don’t forget,” Wilson said, noting that the donation of Conyers’ papers will help to ensure that the legacy is honored and remembered.

Keith talked about the early days of his practice in Detroit, when Nathan Conyers (also at the event), brother of the congressman and a 1959 Wayne Law alumnus, was his law partner. One day, John Conyers came to their office to tell them he was going to run for Congress and asked them for a donation to his campaign, the judge said. The legal practice was struggling financially but gave the aspiring lawmaker a small donation anyway.

“John, the dividend has paid off beautifully,” Keith told Conyers. “These papers you are leaving are very important for the children to know the struggle that we have had to endure.”

The judge quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right?”

Keith said Conyers, who fought for years to have Martin Luther King Day recognized federally, reminds him of that quotation.

“You have lived your time in Washington … in a way that makes all of us proud of you – because it’s right,” Keith told the lawmaker.

Conyers came to the podium, expressed his gratitude and spoke of going through his papers for the donation and of some of the social justice bills he had introduced and advocated for over the decades.

“I am the product of so many of you in this room,” the congressman said. “I am so privileged and proud to stand here today, to continue the great work that needs to be spread among those young folks coming behind us. This is the struggle for making democracy work.”

Photos:

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., left, and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith make their way to the dedication ceremony Friday, July 18. The ceremony honored the donation of Conyers’ personal papers to the Damon J. Keith Collection of African-American Legal History at Wayne State University. For more photos, visit law.wayne.edu/conyerspapers.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., speaks at the dedication ceremony.

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson, right, greets U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith at the event.

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