Sometime about seven years ago, during a discussion of Tiger Woods, the pro golfer, I made the off-hand, but angry, comment, “That’s just what the world needs; another Black sports hero.”
Tracy, who at that time was a co-worker and not yet my close friend, made note of that comment, and it disturbed her. After a day or two had passed, she came to me and mentioned my statement, and asked me what, exactly, I had meant by it. She saw my words as being a condemnation of all Black heroes, sports or otherwise.
I had not meant it that way at all, but I can see why it seemed so at the time. I had meant that it seemed to me that almost all Black public figures fell into one of two categories – sports figure or religious figure – and that helped to stereotype minorities as being only worth what their physical labor would earn them, or what their passion for imaginary beliefs urge them to do.
Today, as I was listening to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” and “Why I am opposed to the Vietnam War” speeches, in commemoration of his birthday, I thought back to that off-hand comment of mine. And I realized several things.
First, that I do respect Dr. King’s work on behalf of civil rights, and his speaking out about the Vietnam War, but that I do so in spite of his religious beliefs, and not because of them. In his case, alone, I am willing to overlook his ties to a dogma that has become a method for authority to control and hoodwink the population. Dr. King understood very well that Jesus of Nazareth’s words, as nearly as we can understand them, were about helping the least among us, and not about building million-dollar churches and funnelling money to political movements whose goals are oppression, torture, and war. And Dr. King saw that poverty in America had dark skin far more often than not.
Second, and following directly from that personal epiphany, for the most part my personal heroes are not men or women of religious beliefs. They are people who either have a wonderful and expressive relationship to words and language, and who use that facility in the service of creating truthful models of the world and the universe in which we live. I’ve talked briefly about some of them in the past: Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, James Randi, for example. Sad to say, my heroes are largely white men. I can’t sit here and blame society or the culture in which I was brought up for this obvious lack on my part.
If asked right now, I can name exactly one person whom I respect for the twin virtues of love of language and willingness to speak it truthfully, who is also not a white man: Representative John Conyers of Michigan. In commemoration of Dr. King’s dream that men and women be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, I resolve to keep in mind my blind spot in regards to my list of heroes.
And, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I salute Rep. John Conyers as one of my intellectual heroes. Let me give you a brief introduction to this great American politician.
Although Rep. Conyers has served in Congress since 1965, which is nearly my entire life, I first encountered him in Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11”. Conyers’ ironic tone as he lectured Moore about how most of our representatives don’t read the bills they vote on, stoked my curiousity and led me to dig a little deeper into who this honest Congressman was.
Rep. Conyers is the second-longest-serving member of Congress. Four days after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, it was Rep. Conyers who introduced the bill to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. That bill was not signed into law until 2 November 1983, an astonishing fifteen years later, and then only after Congress passed the bill with a veto-proof majority, forcing President Reagan’s hand.
Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks, served as a member of Conyers’ staff from 1965 to 1988, when she retired. Ms. Parks, of course, became the mother of the American Civil Rights movement when she refused to move from her seat in the front of the city bus in Montgomery, Alabama so that a white person could sit down.
Conyers is the founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he started in 1969.
Conyers has also authored several studies during the Bush-Cheney years about the abuses of the Federal Government that our current president has presided over, notably the “The Constitution In Crisis”, a study of the colusion between the White House and the UK’s #10 Downing Street in the lead-up to the Iraq War/Occuption; and “What Went Wrong In Ohio”, which covers the 2004 Presidential election and documents all of the various ways in which minorities and the poor, typically Democratic voters, were disenfranchised and systematically prevented from participating in the most basic of (small-“d”) democratic acts.
Now, with the Democratic Party taking control of Congress, Conyers has been appointed to the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the arm of Congress that provides oversight of the administration of the Federal courts and law enforcement, specifically the Justice Department. This standing committee is also the one most involved with the few times in our country’s history that articles of impeachment have been brought against the Executive Branch… Which surely has George W. Bush and Richard Cheney worried…
So that I may highlight another aspect of intellectual honesty, one of the other virtues that I respect, may I point out that Rep. Conyers cooperated and admitted to mistakes in violating House ethics rules. Two former aides of Conyers accused him of using them to chaffeur and baby-sit his children, and of having them work on state and local political campaigns. Rep. Conyers worked with the Ethics Committee and because of his admission of wrong-doing and his cooperation, the Ethics Committee considered the matter closed. My heroes admit their mistakes, in public.