At Morgan State University’s spring commencement ceremony Saturday, Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings urged the graduates to use their freshly minted degrees and talents to defend and promote democracy in its “hour of peril.”
The commencement speaker, who chairs the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Reform — the body that possesses jurisdiction to investigate any federal program or matter with federal policy implications — was sued last month by President Donald Trump and the Trump Organization to halt subpoenas for financial information from the president's businesses, on the grounds that Cummings had exceeded the limitations of Congress.
Cummings did not address the president by name during his nearly 35-minute address.
“This fight for the very soul of our democracy has been raised … by the actions of the president of the United States of America, both while in office and, it may still be determined, by his prior conduct,” the Baltimore native and resident said, alluding to the subpoenas. “Congress must reassert our constitutional power and obligation of oversights.”
In addition to Cummings, class President Emani Majors addressed the crowd. Echoing Cummings, the construction management graduate said the day marked an important milestone for students to embark on new beginnings and start paving the way for future generations.
“The class of 2019 doesn’t fit into a box,” she said. “We’re going to be the change we want to see while advocating for that change.”
Cummings’ position as one of the most powerful figures in Washington was cemented with the election of a majority of House Democrats in the 2018 election. He described the country’s challenges both domestic and abroad as surpassing “anything we’ve endured in five decades,” citing specifically the attempts to undermine the 2016 election and the debates surrounding income inequality, health care, public education, law enforcement and the environment.
“The threats to our democracy have been allowed to metastasize by the failure of the current Republican majority in the Senate and the prior Republican House majority to fulfill our constitutional duties,” he said. “We must demand and obtain answers to serious questions that, until now, have gone unanswered.”
Pressing students to unite with those with whom they do not agree to move the country forward, Cummings said they must accept their responsibility as U.S. citizens and realize their human potential to stand up against “inhumanity” and “calculated distrust.”
“We are at a crossroads,” Cummings said. “At 68, I have now lived longer than I will live. Your lives are in front of you — and so I beg you to go out and stand up for this democracy.”
The congressman’s speech also invoked non-political themes. As one of seven children raised in South Baltimore, Cummings recalled his modest childhood as the son of two parents who did not attend college. A school counselor once scoffed at his dream of becoming a lawyer.
“You’re not hearing this from someone who grew up with a silver spoon. I didn’t even have a plastic one,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Years later, after graduating from Howard University as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa society, Cummings enrolled in the University of Maryland School of Law and worked as lawyer until winning a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he eventually became the state’s first African American speaker pro tempore. He seized a U.S. House seat in 1996 and has been re-elected every election since.
Cummings urged graduates to learn from the obstacles they’ve similarly faced and apply it to their futures.
“Never forget the bridge that brought you over,” he said. “Do not let anybody define you. You must define yourselves.”
Lemuel Pridgen Jr., who graduated Saturday with a degree in political science, said those with political views on both ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum could take something away from Cummings’ speech.
“I’m inspired to do more for my community,” Pridgen said.
“He’s motivated us to do more than just get a degree,” added Adre’onia Coleman, a basketball player who graduated with a degree in philosophy.
Later in the commencement, the 701 undergraduates applauded two fellow students whose untimely deaths prevented them from graduating. The university awarded both students posthumous degrees. One of the students, 21-year-old Kevon Dix, was shot and killed last month after leaving a friend’s house in Northeast Baltimore where he was doing his homework. Dix’s brother accepted the degree on his behalf.
The university also awarded an honorary doctoral degree to alumnus William C. Rhoden, a writer and editor for ESPN’s “The Undefeated” website as well as a former Baltimore Afro-American and Baltimore Sun reporter.
More than 100 members from Morgan State College’s class of 1969 also attended Saturday’s ceremony, Morgan State University President David Wilson said, adding that collectively, they had raised $1.4 million to give back to their alma mater.
“They’re paying it back and paying it forward,” he said.
In a Facebook post, Wilson wrote that the 70-yard tent that shaded Saturday’s graduates and faculty members would be “the look that [they] will embrace” until the university could build an arena that could fit 12,000 to 15,000 people, citing the realities of global warming and the unpredictability of the weather as the motivation.