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What Elijah Cummings thought about being mistaken for John Lewis | COMMENTARY

The late Rep. John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus waited to enter as a group to attend the memorial services for Rep. Elijah Cummings at the U.S. Capitol in Washington last October.
The late Rep. John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus waited to enter as a group to attend the memorial services for Rep. Elijah Cummings at the U.S. Capitol in Washington last October. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Dan Sullivan should be forgiven for posting pictures of my late husband, Congressman Elijah Cummings, who died in October at the age of 69, in their Twitter tributes to the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who died on July 17th at the age of 80. John and Elijah would have forgiven them their mistake, since the congressmen were used to being doppelgängers: biologically unrelated but considered look-alikes to the unpracticed eye.

When people approached Elijah on the street declaring how honored they were to meet a civil rights legend like him, he would ask in a kind but curious tone, “Who do you think I am?” Earlier in his congressional career, most often they would say, “John Lewis!” If Elijah didn’t feel up to correcting them, the person left believing they had met the great John Lewis.

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These encounters left Elijah slightly dejected because he wanted to be recognized on his own merits. As time passed and Elijah rose to prominence through his leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, people would more often than not respond, “Elijah Cummings?” with a confused look when he asked who they thought he was. Elijah would smile, confirm they were right, then explain that he was often mistaken for John Lewis.

Even I had to explain the difference when friendly acquaintances reported seeing my husband Congressman Lewis on television. Wanting to get it straight once and for all, I insisted on taking a picture with my “two husbands” that I later posted on Facebook explaining that, while they looked similar, Elijah was more than a foot taller than John.

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The media also often confused the two. When Elijah died, CBS aired a picture of John Lewis causing a brouhaha among observers who viewed it as culturally insensitive and disrespectful, noting that Fox News had committed the same error only a few months earlier.

They say that we all have a look-alike somewhere in the world. But what are the chances that we will ever see them or meet them? That John and Elijah would not only meet but serve together in the U.S. Congress defies all odds. And, despite the confusion about their similar appearance, I believe that their biggest similarity was their indomitable freedom-loving spirits.

While Elijah and I became friends, fell in love and got married, I got to know and observe Congressman Lewis working as professional staff on the House Ways and Means Committee, on which John was a member, in the late ’90s. John was gentle and kind and, like Elijah, garnered the admiration and respect of colleagues and staff. He and Elijah stood up for what they believed in, spoke truth to power, and fought for justice, voting and human rights.

Sons of the American South, they both experienced Jim Crow segregation in their youth and chafed against an unjust system that designated them as second-class citizens. John famously had his skull cracked by a billy club wielding police officer while protesting in Selma, Alabama. Elijah had his forehead cut open by a rock throwing segregationist while participating in a children’s march to integrate the Riverside Pool in South Baltimore.

Born in different years to different mothers in different states, John and Elijah both carried psychological and physical scars from their experiences with American racism that led them to become legislators destined to change the landscape of American history.

As one of his last acts, John contributed a quote to the jacket of Elijah’s forthcoming book saying that Elijah’s was a “‘moral voice crying in the wilderness’ on behalf of our American democracy.” John Lewis’s great moral voice also provided a much-needed beacon of hope during our nation’s current dark times.

Now they are both dancing with the angels but they have left a charge that we must keep. Mr. Rubio and Mr. Sullivan should make up for their mistake by committing to restore the Voting Rights Act. Ending police brutality, embracing diversity and inclusion, protecting human rights, and safeguarding our democracy are other ways we can extend John and Elijah’s legacy to our children and the world.

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings (maya@globalpolicysolutions.com) is author of the forthcoming book “RAGEISM: Race, Age, Gender Exclusion and the Politics of Health Equity (Routledge).” Elijah Cummings’ book “We’re Better Than This: My Fight for the Future of Our Democracy” (HarperCollins) will be released in September.

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