The turmoil of the last several weeks should not detract us from noting and mourning the passing of Congressman Elijah Cummings, who represented Maryland’s District 7 in Congress since 1996.
Cummings’ position and seniority in the House gave visibility to Maryland and his Congressional district, which covers about half of Baltimore City, part of Baltimore County, and most of Howard County. He was respected for his integrity and fundamental fairness. He frequently worked across the aisle to get bipartisan support for legislation aimed at improving areas as diverse as federal record keeping and pension funds. His ability to work with people with different political positions put him in line to succeed House Speaker Pelosi when she stepped down or retired.
As chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, he presided over hearings, still ongoing, to determine if there is evidence of presidential wrongdoing, and if so, to decide if it’s sufficient to bring articles of impeachment against Donald Trump. For him, these hearings were not partisan posturing, but a fight for our democratic values. He said about them, “It’s about loving democracy. It’s about loving our country. It’s about making a difference for generations yet unborn. I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on. Because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children and your children’s children, and generations yet unborn, we have got to guard this moment. This is our watch.”
Cummings will be remembered for more than his chairmanship, his legislative career, and his considerable oratorical skills. He will be remembered for doing what was right and decent. At 11 years of age, he put himself at great personal risk to try to desegregate a public swimming pool in south Baltimore. Told by a school counselor that he lacked the smarts to become a lawyer, he proved himself more than capable of attaining that goal. He broke color lines in the Maryland House of Delegates, and during his 16 years in the House of Delegates, he became the first African-American to rise to Speaker Pro Tempore, the House’s second most powerful position. In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, Cummings showed up on the streets, urging calm in the face of violence.
Another tragic incident showed Cummings’ character: he happened to pull into a gas station where moments earlier, a man had been stabbed during a robbery attempt. Cummings tried to stanch the flow of blood coming from the victim’s wounds and prayed with him. The victim spoke only Spanish, but was comforted by Cummings’ presence, and on hearing him speak the name of Jesus, the dying man clenched his hand.
In addition to representing his district, Cummings was a presence in it. He was known to the people he represented, living and attending church there, being accessible to them, tirelessly working to improve the city he called home. For him, the job really was all about serving the people.
Over his career, Elijah Cummings earned the respect of his peers on both sides of the aisle for being principled, hard-working, and honorable. In a business where one’s views are frequently determined by polls and focus groups, Cummings was a man of his word. Over his long career in public service, not once was there even a hint of scandal, in either his public or personal life.
His death is a great loss to the people he served. The citizens of Baltimore, of Maryland, and the country have lost one of their most respected, most loved leaders. In a rare tribute to the man, his body lies in state in the Capital. We wish his family and friends and the nation he served the comfort and peace that he sought to provide.