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A time of renewal for Baltimore

It has been nearly one year since I spoke at Freddie Gray's funeral — and since our city found itself in the throes of unrest. During the past year, I have had the opportunity to work with many people who are dedicated to securing a better future for our city and our nation. Yet, at this one-year mark, we are still seeking the answers to the question that I asked when facing the cameras in the pews at New Shiloh Baptist Church.

"Did you truly see Freddie Gray while he was alive?"

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The answers to why we have failed to truly see the Freddie Grays of our society are complex, but this much is clear: We have not done enough to assure pathways to opportunity for all the people of our community. We have relied too heavily upon our law enforcement officers and mass incarceration to address the most crippling segregation of all — the segregation from hope that is an inevitable consequence of generational poverty.

The obstacles that prevented our truly "seeing" Freddie Gray and prevented him from becoming all God meant for him to be, did not begin when he was born, or even when I was young more than half a century ago.

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I was a student at Baltimore City College when President Lyndon Johnson's Kerner Commission examined the cause of rioting in American cities during the 1960s.

More than a century after the end of slavery, the Commission concluded that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black and one white — separate and unequal."

Less than two months later, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and Baltimore was engulfed in riots for an entire week.

Fast-forward nearly 50 years, and the images of Baltimore on the TV mere hours after Freddie Gray's funeral were uncomfortably familiar.

Having lived through the riots of 1968, it pained me to see another generation of young Baltimore residents crying out in anguish and frustration at the reality that, despite a century and a half of struggle, far too many of the same barriers to opportunity remain.

The tenacity of these inequities has instilled desolation and anger in young Americans of every racial background, but it is clear that extreme poverty and over-incarceration have been imposed disproportionately upon people of color.

The Congressional Joint Economic Committee recently found that more than 25 percent of all African-Americans nationally still live in poverty; the median net worth of white households is 13 times greater than the level for black households; and the unemployment rate for African-Americans nationally is still more than double the unemployment rate for whites.

Since 1980, the failed war on drugs has increased the number of federal prisoners by more than 700 percent, while the U.S. population has grown by just more than 32 percent. Academic studies highlight the racial disparities within the system, including that prosecutors are twice as likely to impose mandatory minimum sentences on African-American defendants than on white defendants who committed similar crimes.

Yet, for all these challenges, my faith in America and Baltimore remains strong. We have the ability to build a better community if we work together to channel our pain and frustration into sustainable political will.

We must work to implement reforms like the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's Plan for Sustainable Development that offer practical remedies for the extensive pockets of generational poverty that beleaguer our region.

The plan is practical and achievable, focusing upon workforce training that will qualify more of our neighbors for mid-skilled jobs that pay living wages, expanded public transit services to connect working families to jobs and training opportunities and more affordable housing near existing and planned job centers.

We must continue our efforts to moderate the use of force by our police officers and comprehensively reform why we put people in prison, what happens to them there and how they return to society.

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We must remain committed to bringing much-needed federal funding to our inner-city neighborhoods, helping formerly-incarcerated individuals have a fair shake in applying for employment and investigating the troubling trend toward privatization of our criminal justice system.

Baltimore will always be at the heart of my commitment to ensuring that the Congress addresses these challenges in meaningful and substantive ways. Yet I realize that lasting change for Baltimore and all of the underserved communities nationwide will require a sustained commitment from us all.

Fifty years from now, there should not be another person in his 60s pained to see the same unfairness and inequity that led to the unrest that I saw as a teenager in 1968.

In achieving this vision, the dedication and hard work that I have witnessed in my neighbors here in Baltimore since last year have been inspiring.

I remain convinced that, working together, we can assure that history remembers April 2015 as a time of rebirth for Baltimore and our nation — the moment when we began to truly see all of our people and include them in America's promise of opportunity for all.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is a Democratic congressman from Baltimore. His email is rep.cummings@mail.house.gov.

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