House Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings recounts the time in 1962 when he fought for the right to swim at a Baltimore pool.
WASHINGTON — A few days after President Donald Trump’s tweet that four Democratic congresswomen of color should "go back” to other countries, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings placed a finger on an eyebrow and felt for an old scar.
The Baltimore Democrat said it was left by a bottle hurled at him during a steamy late summer 57 years ago, when white mobs taunted and threw rocks and bottles at Cummings and other African American kids seeking to integrate the Riverside Park pool in South Baltimore.
The scar has faded, but Cummings, 68, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that Trump’s tweets and comments are troubling echoes of that day in 1962, when he felt stomach-churning fear and shock at being confronted with raw hate as an 11-year-old boy.
The language of the president’s tweets, Cummings said, reminded him of shouts he heard at the pool: "Go back where you came from!”
He issued a statement Tuesday denouncing the Republican president’s tweets as "racist” and "xenophobic.” The next day, the 23-year congressional veteran sat in his Capitol Hill office — surrounded by framed photos of himself with anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, Coretta Scott King and other prominent civil rights activists — and tried to explain why the president’s tweets felt so personal.
“I don’t think these Republicans or Trump fully understand what it feels like to be treated like less than a dog,” said Cummings, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has been demanding documents about Trump’s policies and personal finances, as well as possible abuses by agencies in his administration.
"I’m feeling the same things that I felt when these white folks down in South Baltimore were throwing rocks and bottles at me. But now, I feel like it’s the president of the United States doing it.”
White House spokesmen did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“I’m feeling the same things that I felt when these white folks down in South Baltimore were throwing rocks and bottles at me.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore
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Trump’s initial tweets Sunday targeted four Democratic congresswomen, all minorities, saying they should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Three of the four targeted congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — were born in the United States. All three are members of the committee that Cummings chairs.
The fourth member targeted in the tweets — U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — was born in Somalia, and her family fled to the U.S. when she was a child. The four are nicknamed “The Squad.”
Trump followed up Tuesday with a tweet saying: "I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!” Trump supporters at a North Carolina rally the next night chanted “send her back” after he criticized Omar. The president told reporters Thursday he “was not happy” with the chant and tried to stop it, although video of the event instead shows the president pausing in his remarks as the crowd repeats the phrase.
Accounts by The Sun from 1962 described a series of racist incidents at the pool, including rock-throwing, bomb scares, taunts and someone throwing "bright green tracer dye in the water.” On one occasion, "a crowd of some 500 persons, gathered around the pool while 32 Negroes swam, was restrained by about 70 policemen reinforced by K-9 dogs.”
"Some of us had more nerve than we had good sense,” said civil rights activist Walter Black, 83, who helped lead Cummings and the other elementary school kids to the pool as a 26-year-old staff member of the NAACP.
The black kids had previously been swimming that summer in a wading pool they thought was too small and shallow.
At the larger pool on Labor Day, "I knew that an 11-year-old got his head cut. He was no more than two feet behind me,” Black said Wednesday. He said that turned out to be Cummings, whom he got to know much later.
Among the leaders of the pool integration was the NAACP’s Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first black woman to practice law in Maryland and the wife of pioneering NAACP leader Clarence Mitchell Jr.
"When they were throwing the bottles, apparently Ms. Mitchell got cut,” Cummings said. “And I’ll never forget her putting her arms around us and the blood dripping on my shirt. She was OK, but she was protecting us.”
Cummings said in the interview that regarding impeachment, he is following the lead of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Judicary Committee. Pelosi has said it’s up to House committees to continue to "follow the facts” on Trump’s activities.
The congressman said he remains troubled that the Trump administration is withholding documents and witnesses from the House. "You cannot have a check if you cannot get documents, if you cannot get witnesses,” he said.
Cummings said he habitually turns to a book called "Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff” for guidance.
The idea is not to be so focused on putting out political brush fires that the broader mission is lost. That mission, he says, involves contemplating what he can do for "generations unborn” of all races.
"I keep reminding our speaker and I keep reminding The Squad that we must be effective and efficient. That’s what I concentrate on, the big picture.”