If Americans are listening for a single voice of wisdom, moral authority and unity at a time of national crisis — a big ask in a country of 328 million people suffering through a pandemic, a divisive presidency and widespread anarchy after the brutal killing of another unarmed black man by police — they haven’t heard it yet.
They certainly did not hear it, much less expect it, from the White House, with a president who makes no pretense to moral leadership.
As police confronted protesters and buildings burned in cities across the country, there was no single, righteous voice calling for peaceful demonstrations, resistance without violence.
And while I know those important voices are there — they were in the streets of several cities, including in Baltimore, and on cable here and there — they were not enough to prevent the violence and destruction of property.
But I have to ask: Who could have done that? Does such a voice even exist? And what did we expect?
A deep vein of anger has been opened. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was outrageous by itself, but it also laid bare, again, all the frustrating and infuriating problems that eat away at this society.
It’s not only police brutality, but what it has come to represent for people of color and a new generation of Americans who say enough is enough — enough of income inequality, enough of racism and white supremacy, enough of mass shootings, homelessness, indifference to poverty, hostility toward immigrants, tax cuts for the rich, environmental degradation, political and corporate corruption, enough of an incompetent and indecent presidency.
And so who speaks to all of that? Who speaks to a nation in descent? Who raises us up?
In this fevered time, with social media in overdrive, a million voices drowning out a million voices, a president who tweets divisiveness instead of unity, when cynicism feeds hopelessness, when hopelessness leaves millions out on the margins, alienated and angry, who brings us together? Who speaks to the better angels?
When a Democratic Party activist suggested Sunday that former President Barack Obama speak to the nation, as he did so eloquently in times of tragedy, someone answered with this tweet: “No. Obama is not your magical [n-word]. Stop looking to Black people to solve problems they did not create.”
And another tweet reminded me that, even as he offered consoling and thoughtful words after the April 2015 unrest in Baltimore on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, Obama used the terms “criminals” and “thugs” to describe young men engaged in arson and vandalism. Those terms might have been technically descriptive, but they were also inflammatory and similar to the harsh terms used by TV talking heads and various trolls to dismiss those who protested Gray’s death in police custody.
Still, Obama’s comforting words at times of immense tragedy — after the massacres at Sandy Hook and Aurora, after the killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston — mark him as the nation’s mourner-in-chief, widely admired for his wise perspective and empathy. And as the coronavirus spreads through the country and kills more Americans each day, we’re also reminded of Obama’s calm stewardship to stop the Ebola threat in 2014 and 2015.
So the yearning for his voice does not rise solely from the death of George Floyd, but from a desire for decency and thoughtful leadership.
Certainly there are other voices out there — celebrated athletes and entertainers, writers and activists — speaking truth to power while also calling for peaceful resistance.
But the one that’s noticeably missing, for Baltimore and for the nation, is the one we heard on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, and the one that spoke forcefully from his seat in a congressional hearing room.
On Sunday, an exquisite spring day in Baltimore — a sunny, breezy and glad-to-be alive day — I could almost hear the late Elijah Cummings. Hear his bullhorn voice. Hear his anguish, his authority, his clarity, his wisdom.
He was the only elected official who spoke at Gray’s funeral, and the congressman asked that question: “Did you see him?” Had anyone paid attention to Freddie Gray, or all the other young men and women who grew up in poverty in Baltimore? “Did you see him?” Had society done all that could have been done, Cummings asked, to help Gray when he was “struggling to simply be all God meant for him to be?” At a confusing, painful and fraught moment, Cummings expressed empathy and challenged us as only he could.
That night he and ministers were out on the streets, trying to bring calm to the crowds confronting police.
Months later, when the first officer charged in Gray’s death went to trial, the city was tense again. Cummings stepped forward with these words in advance of the verdict: "The verdict will have as much legitimacy as our society can provide. We, who struggle for greater justice in our society, must be prepared to do justice as well … We must be just whether we agree or disagree with a jury's verdict."
Cummings later spoke of “two Baltimores” and choked up as he railed against racial and economic disparities in the city. He offered perspective on cops and the community, saying that he believed “99% of police” to be good cops, but that a contrasting view would remain a challenge for a long time.
I can still hear him on the phone, grieving over the loss of so many Baltimoreans from homicides. I hear him in Washington, outraged at the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents, outraged at efforts to make it harder for people to vote. “We are better than this,” he so often exclaimed. If still with us, I’m sure he would be saying that today.