Elijah Cummings: 'There are clearly two Baltimores'

"There are two Baltimores," U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said Sunday. "There are clearly two Baltimores."

Elijah Cummings can still hear the music played by the South Baltimore musicians he grew up idolizing.

As a child, he asked his father for 35 cents to rent a horn and learn to play with them. It was 35 cents, he said, the seven-child family couldn't afford.

"I mourn for what could've been," the now-64-year-old, 11-term congressman said. "There are two Baltimores. There are clearly two Baltimores."

Speaking from behind the lectern at the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church's "Tiffany Series" Sunday, Cummings told several such stories to illustrate his point. The son of two pastors choked up as he railed against the racial and economic disparities in the city, to the applause of the Bolton Hill congregation.

The series features musicians and speakers "on issues of concern to the Baltimore community," and has included Harry Belafonte, peace activist Elizabeth McAlister and "House of Cards" creator and executive producer Beau Willimon.

Cummings said he remembered as a child watching dice games on the Saturday mornings after payday get broken up by police officers who took the money and left. He emphasized that he considers "99 percent of police" to be good cops, but said the community's perception of the police remains a challenge, especially after the death of Freddie Gray.

Gray, 25, died in April after he suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody. His death led to anti-brutality protests and later looting and riots that prompted officials to declare a citywide curfew and deploy the National Guard.

Following the unrest, Cummings said, he visited a Northwest Baltimore high school where a student told him she wanted to grow up to be a nurse but couldn't.

"Why not?" he asked.

"There are only two math teachers in the whole school," the girl replied.

The educational points of Cummings' talk resonated with Elden and Bonnie Schneider, a pair of retired teachers who live in the Lauraville area and volunteer at Eutaw Marshburn Elementary School in Madison Park — where a man was shot to death on Thursday.

"There's nothing for those kids," Bonnie Schneider said. "We try to provide the little bit we can."

Taking guns off the street and sapping the money out of the drug trade are central to rectifying the city's ills, Cummings said.

"People in my neighborhood tell me — these are 15-year-olds — they tell me that they can get a gun faster than they can get a cigarette," Cummings said.

Jobs are crucial, too, especially for ex-offenders who often have trouble finding work, he said. Members of the city health department's Safe Streets anti-violence program in East Baltimore, which was temporarily shut down when guns and drugs were found in the Monument Street office, told Cummings they needed the money to pay child support, he said.

Gang members struck a similar theme when they met with Cummings around the time of the April unrest, he said.

"When I sit down and hear their excuses for some of the crimes being committed, it'll make you cry," he said. "We need to take the profit out of drugs, because that's very significant."

Cummings' speech followed performances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra "OrchKids," tubist Keith Flemming and flutists Asia Palmer, Jonah Lassiter and OrchKids senior site manager Camille Delany-McNeil. The West Baltimore students participate in the orchestra's after-school program, whose mission is to "create social change by nuturing promising futures" for city youth.

During a question-and-answer segment with the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, Cummings didn't rule out a run for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's senate seat.

"I'm going to do what feeds my soul," he said. "And what feeds my soul is having these kinds of opportunities. ... No matter what, it's going to be about the business of serving people."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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