Ken Coleman: Remembering Dingell, Keith and Conyers, proud veterans who fought for justice

November 11, 2019 6:42 am

Officers stand guard while waiting to drape a flag on the casket of the late former U.S. Representative John Dingell at the end of his funeral at Church of the Divine Child in Dearborn on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 | Pool photo

On Veterans Day 2019, I reflected this morning on three American heroes who died this year: John Dingell, Damon Keith and John Conyers.

I covered each of their funeral services and interviewed dozens of people about their storied careers. During each service, I saw young men and women serving as members of the color guard and as mourners. I wondered how many of them realized that the departed icon being remembered had served his country during a time of intense global conflict, long before their historic careers.   

Former U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) died on Feb. 7 at age 92. He served our country in the U.S. Army during World War II. The longest-serving member of Congress in American history was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

“I actually loved the Army, and I still do. I’m very, very proud of having served in the war,” Dingell told MLive in 2014. “It was a great experience.”

Damon Keith, the longtime federal judge from Detroit, died on April 28 at age 96. Keith, too, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His tenure occurred during the days of racially segregated army services. For three years, Keith drove a truck in Europe for the Quartermaster Corps. He called the experience “absolutely degrading.”

“After coming back and having to ride on the back of buses while seeing German soldiers ride in the front and seeing German soldiers go into restaurants in the South that I could not go into, I made up mind I was going to become a lawyer,” Keith told the Detroit Free Press in 2002.

Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) died on Oct. 27 at age 90. Conyers also served in the U.S. Army. His service, however, was rendered during the Korean conflict for 12 months beginning in 1950. Two years before, the military had been desegregated. In officer candidate school, Conyers roomed with a white man.

“I didn’t have a bad experience,” said Conyers in a 2013 interview with the Free Press. “In a way, it gave me travel I might not have otherwise experienced. I like to think that my worldview was broadened by my military experience.”

All three men fought for civil rights, as well as liberty and justice for all. Dingell and Conyers cast affirmative votes for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, bills that created Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Keith served as co-chair of the first Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1963 and later a U.S. District Court and federal Court of Appeals judge. His rulings helped to racially integrate public schools in Pontiac, and as well as government agencies like the Detroit Police Department.    

But first, each man was part of America’s greatest generation: men and women who placed country first through military service. They later toiled as federal government agents of change.

I didn’t serve in the military, but I’ve greatly benefited from their outstanding service. On this Veterans Day, I salute John Dingell, Damon Keith and John Conyers. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.