John Conyers Jr.’s story is one of of history, hope and honor.

The former U.S. congressman from Detroit, who died at age 90 on Oct. 27 and whose life was celebrated at a funeral this week, rose above America’s policy of discrimination and racism and defied the forces of history to become one of our nation’s most important voices of hope.

Considering the American historical context of nearly 250 years of slavery from 1619-1865, followed by 100 years of legal segregation from 1865 to 1965, Conyers spent his entire public and political life since winning election to Congress in 1964 fighting to help America rise above its dark past.

His life’s work was shaped by what came before, from Rosa Parks’ transportation moment in 1955, the sit-ins and marches of the 1950s and 1960s, the Birmingham Church bombing in 1963, the March on Washington of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His political leadership helped shape the Voting Rights Act of 1965, contributed to the 1968 Fair Housing Act and the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977 and so many other political initiatives that helped to make America better.

When tensions arose in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s in places like Miami, Cincinnati, Detroit and all across America, Conyers used his bully pulpit as a Democratic leader on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and convened public hearings to create public records that ensured the people’s voices were heard.

Simply put, Conyers kept hope alive and was that drum major for justice, like Martin Luther King Jr., Conyers was the original author and champion of the Martin Luther King national holiday. The world will forever benefit from Conyers’ leadership when we acknowledge King’s holiday. King dreamed of a world where people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. In fact, the only person the civil-rights leader ever publicly endorsed was Conyers.

John Conyers’ life was a legacy of leadership and love. He always fought against the triplets of evil, which included racism, poverty, and war. He always fought for jobs, justice and peace. His legacy includes paving the way for leaders like Shirley Chisolm, Rev. Jesse Jackson, all the way through President Barack Obama.

I have always marveled at how Conyers’ presence at community experiences reflected his love for people. There is an old African proverb that says “as long as we remember our ancestors they will never die.”

John Conyers Jr. will live on!

About the author: Heaster Wheeler is assistant secretary of state in Michigan and the former executive director of the Detroit Branch NAACP.

This guest commentary first appeared in Bridge Magazine, an online publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan.

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