WASHINGTON — The stunning fall of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat and civil rights icon facing mounting accusations of sexual harassment, brought a half-century congressional career to a clouded conclusion Tuesday.

For Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, the scandal which engulfed Conyers also presented perhaps the biggest challenge yet in his tenure as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group the 88-year-old Conyers helped found more than four decades ago.

Richmond, who at 44 is half Conyers' age, was buffeted for much of the past two weeks with questions about whether Conyers should resign in the wake of a bombshell BuzzFeed News report detailing a secret settlement the congressman reached in 2015 with a former staffer who alleged she'd been sexually harassed.

As calls mounted for Conyers to step aside — including from top Democratic Party leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California — Richmond demanded in blunt conversations that the Detroit Democrat cooperate with an Ethics Committee investigation into the accusations.

But Richmond also pushed back on calls for Conyers' resignation, asking instead for due process and time for the House's longest-serving congressman to wrestle with the decision himself.

"Within the family, this was the most trying moment," Richmond said in an interview Tuesday evening with The Advocate. "A guy that you’ve known, a person you’ve grown to love and accept as part of your family, you want to hold out hope that he did not do these awful things and treat people like this.

"Then you have a number of allegations out there that seem credible that cause alarm and disturb you," Richmond said. "However, you have no way of independently judging anything so you have to rely on the institution in (the Ethics Committee) to be that."

The mounting accusations of harassment against Conyers, Richmond said, "created such an emotional tear" for Congressional Black Caucus members, some of whom had worked with Conyers for decades.

"It was very hard for members of the Caucus, and I could see the pain on their faces," Richmond said.

The credibility of Conyers' accusers — and the growing number of women coming forward to allege mistreatment — weighed heavily. But Conyers' strenuous denials also left Richmond and others hesitant to demand his immediate ouster.

"He denied all the allegations in the strongest sense and said they were absolutely not true and that he was going to fight to clear his name," Richmond said. "But the allegations were serious and, if true, they’re awful and resignation or retirement was the appropriate step."

Richmond spoke privately several times with Conyers as the cloud around him grew. So did Pelosi and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the House's third-ranking Democrat and a fellow Black Caucus member.

Publicly, Richmond welcomed an Ethics Committee investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment but insisted on meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus to hammer out a response. Any decision to resign before the investigation wrapped up, Richmond insisted in a statement a week after the first allegations surfaced publicly, would be Conyers' alone to make.

"You had some tough discussions (in the CBC) but I think there was a consensus that there should be some time for due process or for John to make a determination with his family about what he thought the appropriate thing to do was," Richmond said Tuesday night.

Conyers' towering reputation as a civil rights leader made the allegations against him particularly difficult for Richmond and other Democratic leaders to respond to. Pelosi took considerable heat when she called Conyers "an icon" during an appearance on Meet the Press in the wake of the allegations.

A Korean War veteran, Conyers was first elected to Congress in 1964 and played a key role in numerous civil rights battles. At the time of his abrupt resignation Tuesday, Conyers was the institution's longest-serving member.

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus said they saw a double standard at play in the denunciations aimed at Conyers when other politicians accused of sexual harassment — including U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, Sen. Al Franken and President Donald Trump — have so far survived allegations with their careers intact.

"When it happens to one of us, we’re guilty until proven innocent," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat and former chair of the CBC. "The same double standard exists that our president uses for black people. We are guilty until proven innocent. Without giving him due process, without even hearing what happened."

Fudge, meanwhile, praised Richmond's handling of what she termed a difficult situation for the chairman, who took over the position in January.

"I think he’s done an outstanding job," Fudge said. "I think he’s done just what a chairman should do which is protect his caucus and protect his members."

Clyburn, who publicly called for Conyers' resignation after initially insisting the Ethics Committee investigation be allowed to conclude, suggested Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan was being hypocritical in not calling for the ouster of Farenthold, whose $84,000 taxpayer-funded settlement of harassment claims by a former spokeswoman was publicly revealed in recent days.

"I’m a little bit interested in why the Speaker of the House called for (Conyers') resignation and has been radio silent on Blake Farenthold, a settlement that was three times Conyers’…," Clyburn told McClatchy newspapers. "He’s accused of the same thing Conyers was accused of …and the speaker has not said a word. What is the difference?"

The wave of sexual harassment allegations against Conyers began when Mike Cernovich, a far-right activist with ties to a number of fringe conspiracy theories, obtained leaked settlement documents and handed them over to BuzzFeed, which independently verified the authenticity of the documents.

Valeria Sinclair Chapman, a professor of political science at Purdue University in Indiana who follows the Congressional Black Caucus closely, said the unfolding scandal placed Richmond between competing political crosswinds.

The growing national reckoning with sexual assault and harassment in the workplace likely placed immense pressure on Richmond and other Democratic leaders to renounce Conyers, Chapman said. But longstanding ties within the Black Caucus and concerns that black lawmakers have been disproportionately punished in the past created its own pressure to push back.

"If (Richmond) was only looking out for his own hide, he could’ve chosen very differently," said Chapman. "It’s hard to deal with the onslaught of criticism. He has to balance his own political fortunes and his own place in the spotlight against a responsibility to the Caucus and to historical questions of equity."

Richmond said his own relationship with Conyers began when Richmond was still a member of the Louisiana Legislature. The two traveled together to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to visit Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, two of the "Angola Three" prisoners held for years in solitary confinement.

Although Richmond said he still has a great deal of admiration for what Conyers accomplished in his storied career, "the cloud under which he leaves will always be there."

Richmond noted Tuesday night that even before the allegations against Conyers surfaced, the Congressional Black Caucus voluntarily moved to require its members and office chiefs of staff to undergo annual sexual harassment training.

Moving forward, Richmond said, they'll be pushing to overhaul the slow and opaque process under which sexual harassment and other workplace discrimination allegations against members of Congress are currently handled.

"We all agree that this system has to be improved," Richmond said, noting investigations can currently stretch out for a year or more. "I think it was pretty unanimous that we have to fix that."

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.