elijah cummings was one of the great ones

October 17, 2019
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It was late at night and I was in West Baltimore, at the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues. The intersection was filled with Black people who were angry about the murder of Freddie Gray, as well as so many other murders carried out by the Baltimore Police Department. The pain and the tension were palpable. There had already been an uprising that had led to people overrunning the CVS at that corner. It was not clear what was going to happen next but there a mob of stone-faced policemen in riot gear was standing in a row nearby, like an occupying army. There was a curfew in effect that the cops were threatening to enforce, but it didn’t look like the citizens were willing to obey — they’d had enough. Another clash appeared imminent. 

There are very few elected politicians who could or would have been able to walk into a crowd of angry young men and command their respect and their attention. But the people of West Baltimore knew that their Congressman, Elijah Cummings, was the real deal. He was no stranger to these streets. When he picked up a megaphone and calmly spoke to the crowd, he acknowledged their pain while also defusing the moment. I also saw him huddling with police leadership and urging them to hold back. That night the curfew came and went without incident, the police stood down, and the people were able to make their anger known and then trickle off toward home after 11:30pm. Cummings showed us that night that he was more than a politician, he was a true representative of his community — and a real leader. 

Elijah Cummings died early this morning in a Baltimore hospital at the age of 68.

Cummings was like a lion in human form. He was a fighter, a leader, a tireless champion for the people. I’ll never forget seeing him in his Congressional hearings, roaring from behind the dais about the truth, pushing back against the lunacy of the Republican party as they attacked Secretary of State Clinton (during the Obama administration), or defended the lunacy of President Trump. He took the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, of which he was chairman, very seriously. Many will remember him for battling with the buffoon-in-chief during the last year of his life, but while Trump was baselessly and bombastically denigrating Baltimore, the Congressman had a dignified response—”Mr. President,” he tweeted, “I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors. It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents.” Cummings definitely seemed to approach his work in Congress as a moral duty — one of those rare politicians who seemed to be after much more than personal gain, and a true servant of the people, fighting to make their lives better. 

I met and interviewed Rep. Cummings on several occasions, and what stands out is his dignity. He was a politician who spoke from the heart, not from talking points, and he had a voice that sounded like he was an old-school preacher.

Cummings was a Congressman who represented Maryland’s 7th district — which covers the Black half of Baltimore (the 7th district is about 60% Black) — and the people there loved him enough to elect him to Congress 13 times. He served in the House of Representatives for 23 years with dignity and distinction. He was a true son of Baltimore, born there in 1951 and raised there by sharecroppers who became preachers, graduating from Howard University before receiving his law degree from the University of Maryland. 

We need more politicians like Cummings, people who are true public servants, who speak the truth whether or not it polls well, and who are such a part of the fabric of their communities that they can command respect both in the hearings and in the streets. Cummings will never be forgotten and he will be missed. 



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