Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1964: Democratic titans Conyers and Austin square off for U.S. House seat 

By: - September 1, 2021 8:04 am

Rep. John Conyers presented the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award to Harry Belafonte, 2010 | The Leadership Conference via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

On Sept. 1, 1964, John Conyers Jr. edged out Richard Austin in the Democratic Party primary contest for Michigan’s new 1st Congressional District seat. Conyers won the primary 108 votes.

The race was so close that Austin requested a recount. After the ballots were tabulated again, Conyers’ margin of victory was a razor-thin 44 votes, according to Detroit Free Press reporting. The seat was created due to the state’s reappointment effort.  

The election of Conyers and the re-election of U.S. Rep. Charles Diggs Jr. (D-Detroit) gave Michigan two Black congressmembers. It is the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction days that any state had elected more than one African American of Congress. 

Conyers, who was born in Highland Park and raised in Detroit, had been working as a private attorney and prior to 1961 had been a legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. John Dingell Jr. (D-Detroit). 

Richard Austin | Wikimedia Commons photo

A Stone Mountain, Ala., native, Austin graduated from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the Detroit Institute of Technology. He later became Michigan’s first Black certified public accountant. 

Austin also served as an elected delegate to the Michigan Constitutional Convention in 1961-62, as well as a member of the State Legislative Reapportionment Commission. He had been chair of the 15th Congressional District Democratic Party Organization in 1964. 

Conyers, a Northwestern High School and Wayne State University Law School graduate, had backing from the Trade Union Leadership Council, a relatively new group of Black trade unionists led by Robert “Buddy” Battle and Horace Sheffield Jr. Austin had the endorsement of the powerful UAW and Michigan Chronicle, the state’s largest Black newspaper.

Conyers went on to also win the November general election in landslide fashion over Robert Blackwell, a Black Republican, who later in 1968 became mayor of Highland Park. Conyers served in the U.S. House of Representatives until 2017 when resigned from the office after being accused of sexually harassing a legislative staffer. Conyers died in 2019.

During his tenure on Capitol Hill, he was House Judiciary Committee chair and helped to create the Martin Luther King federal holiday. Conyers holds the distinction of being the longest-serving African-American in congressional history and was referred to as the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Austin was later elected Michigan secretary of state and served from 1971 to 1995. There, he championed motor-voter registration and mandatory seat belt legislation. He ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat in 1976. U.S. Rep. Don Riegle (D-Flint) beat him in the Democratic Party primary. Austin died in 2001. 

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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 Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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