Many stories and anecdotes are being passed around today about Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, the longtime Democratic politician who passed away from chronic health challenges at a too-young 68 years old. One such anecdote was of Cummings as young man, being told by a school counselor that he was a slow learner and a poor speaker who would not amount to anything. Cummings took this as inspiration to earn a BA in political science from Howard University and a JD from the University of Maryland School of Law, becoming a lawyer and then lawmaker who faithfully served the people of his home Baltimore for many years. I wonder how often he was reminded of Moses, another eventual lawgiver who once worried that he was not good enough as a public speaker to be an effective leader.
Elijah Cummings excelled at public speaking and at leadership. He was a staple in the Democratic Party, the African American community and the politics of Baltimore for decades, making significant impacts along the way. As one of the most prominent black public figures in contemporary American politics (he was Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2003-2005) he stood out, and he more than earned his public role. Even if you did not pay close attention to Rep. Cummings, you remembered him. You remembered his face, often displaying a look that seemed to reflect many thoughts and emotions at once: scrutiny of the issues dominating society and politics in the country; sternness towards fellow public servants and sober evaluation of their performance; compassion and empathy for his constituents and the American people.
And if you’ve heard him speak, you remembered that too. Cummings was a lawyer by trade, and often spoke with the directness, precision and forcefulness of a litigator (especially when he was interrogating witnesses who appeared before his House committees). But even though he did not speak with the familiar cadence of a black preacher (his father, a sharecropper from South Carolina who moved his family up north for a better life, was in fact a pastor), he spoke with the air of moral authority that is familiar to anyone who grew up in the black church or remembers the speeches of the Civil Rights leaders who largely came from these African American institutions. This is not surprising, given that Cummings grew up not only listening to his father’s sermons, but, as he told the story, would then run home from church on Sunday as a youth to catch the latest speech from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio, the way other youth might hurry to hear the latest hit single.
Although he was only 68 years old, you might be forgiven for mistaking Cummings for one of the leaders of that Civil Rights era, and this would not be completely wrong. Although he was a child during that period, that didn’t stop him for fighting for his own rights and those of his community. Another anecdote that is making the rounds is of an adolescent Cummings marching with other youth to integrate a public pool in Baltimore; for their efforts, these children “were spit upon, threatened and called everything but children of God,” as Cummings recounted it. The spirit he displayed then, his ability to speak for his community and show grace in the face of vitriol, stayed with Cummings as he represented Baltimore and Maryland through state and national office, and this spirit helped him stand up to opposition. Such opposition even eventually came from the President himself, who took personal offense at Cummings’ efforts to examine the many potential wrongdoings of the current administration and lashed out at both Cummings and the city of Baltimore in one of his many rants.
Note that I’ve not until now mentioned President Trump, whose name is appearing prominently in many remembrances of Elijah Cummings today. While oversight of the current White House dominated much of Rep. Cummings’ political energy in recent years, the Baltimore public servant deserves to be remembered as much more than a footnote of the current political drama, or as a player in others’ stories. His own story is fascinating and powerful and should not be forgotten.
At the same time, that story cannot accurately be told without reference to others. His relationships with his constituents, particularly the fellow residents of Baltimore, should be remembered. In a city that most of the country, in politics and popular culture, views through the lenses of poverty, crime, racism, police brutality and a host of other social ills, Cummings saw a community deserving dignity and respect. It was with the people of Baltimore that Cummings held his most meaningful connections.
Despite his clashes with the current administration, Cummings’ relationships in the political realm were generally much more often positive, friendly, powerful and uplifting as well. Cummings and fellow Baltimore native Nancy Pelosi strongly supported one another and worked together closely. Cummings was one of Pelosi’s strongest advocates as she faced opposition from the Democratic Party’s left wing during her bid to resume the role of Speaker of the House, and Pelosi in turned tapped Cummings to chair the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Cummings also kept friendships across the political aisle: he was close to former Republican Congressman and current MSNBC host Joe Scarborough; Cummings presided over the wedding of Scarborough to his MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezinski. Cummings also cited his friendship with Republican Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows when defending Meadows against accusations of racism, again breaking with the younger left of the Democratic Party but also attempting to promote common ground between the progressive left and the conservative right.
Cummings even also worked with President Trump; in their one face-to-face meeting (prior to the President’s insults against Cummings and the “rat-infested” Baltimore), they found common ground on the issue of lowering prescription drug prices, and Cummings warned the president (to little avail, unfortunately) that Trump’s prior attempts to appeal to black voters by denigrating inner city life was both racist and counterproductive. (President Trump, for his part, honored Rep. Cummings today, noting that he “got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader.”)
Representative Cummings was fittingly named Elijah, famously the name of the Old Testament prophet who spoke uncompromising truth to power, vocally called out corruption in the highest political offices, and as a result faced vicious attacks from the rulers of the day. Cummings held powerful people accountable for their actions. These powerful people included police in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, who died as a result of injuries sustained in a “rough ride” while in police custody; Cummings championed the investigation and eventual prosecutions that resulted from this case. Yet when the involved officers were acquitted, Cummings urged calm and respect for the judicial process. The powerful people he sought to hold accountable included even the president; Cummings biggest legislative success is the little-known Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014, which tightened the requirements for the Executive Branch to preserve records (including emails) and make them available to the public.
And of course, Cummings’ mission to uphold accountability eventually led to President Trump, who Cummings attempted to hold responsible for the current administration’s lies and malfeasance. But whereas the various back-and-forth hearings and recriminations between the White House and the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives can look like mere political battles, Cummings elevated the fight to a moral and even spiritual plane. Earlier this year, Rep. Cummings’ remarks closed the hearings that brought to Capitol Hill former Trump lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen (similar investigations may bring Rudy Giuliani, the current occupier of that role, before Congress or perhaps federal judges). The Cohen hearing at times devolved into a farce of politics between the various sides, but Cummings was able to refocus the proceedings with his words, which were later widely circulated. For him, oversight was not about scoring political points, but fighting for the principles and the soul of the country. “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?” he asked, not rhetorically.
The Old Testament prophet Elijah held a distinction that was all but unique in human history: he didn’t die. According to the Bible, once his work was done, a chariot of fire swooped down from heaven and carried Elijah away. As he ascended into heaven, his cloak, his mantle, floated down, to be picked up by his protégé Elisha, who then went on to lead a new generation of prophets who continued Elijah’s mission. Legacy was important to Elijah Cummings; one of his recent fights had been to ensure that Harriet Tubman’s face be placed on the $20 bill, a long-planned change that has been held up by the current Secretary of the Treasury. Cummings, though probably too humble to make the comparison himself, continued a legacy set by people like Dr. King before him and Harriet Tubman before him.
The biblical prophet Elisha, it was said, received a “double anointing” – twice the supernatural miracle-inducing power of his mentor – when he inherited Elijah’s mantle. If our Elijah Cummings, who I picture “dancing with the angels” alongside his biblical namesake, had his way, I’m sure he’d want the same – for the current generation to continue to fight for justice, hold leaders accountable, and accomplished even more in their work and lives than the remarkable Rep. Elijah Cummings accomplished in his.