Elijah Cummings built a legacy around helping others, supporting black community
The longtime Baltimore congressman died at 68, leaving behind a trail of kindness and encouragement
Perhaps the most memorable thing about Congressman Elijah Cummings was the depth of his passion — for fairness, for racial justice, and for his struggling hometown of Baltimore.
In formal settings, Cummings, who died at age 68 early Thursday morning, would often speak in the mesmerizing cadence of a Baptist preacher, but with the piercing precision of a lawyer. On the streets of his West Baltimore neighborhood, Cummings spoke the blunt and penetrating language of everyday people.
Part of his genius was that he did both to great effect.
When President Donald Trump’s legal fixer turned legal nemesis Michael Cohen appeared before the Cummings-chaired House Oversight and Reform Committee earlier this year, Cummings offered an unforgettable admonishment. Visibly weakened by a series of health setbacks but sitting tall in his chair, Cummings warned:
“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and do nothing?”
Cummings was never reluctant to join the fray. Following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody in 2015, Cummings spoke eloquently at Gray’s funeral, promising to seek justice for his death. He also bemoaned the fact that the media and others never paid much attention to the plight of Gray, and the struggles of untold numbers of other young black men, until a crisis erupted.
“When I look at all the cameras, I wonder: Did you recognize Freddie when he was alive?” asked Cummings. “Did you see him? Did you see him? Did you see him?”
As Baltimore erupted in rioting following Gray’s funeral, Cummings left his home, just a few blocks from the riot’s epicenter, and took to the streets, bullhorn in hand, to help restore order. For several nights, he helped cool angry young people and urged protesters spoiling for a confrontation with the police to go home before a city-imposed curfew.
“We came here because we love you,” he would say.
His prominence during the disturbance, his work on momentous investigations in Congress and his past chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus, helped transform Cummings into a national figure. But I feel lucky that I got to know him long before most of the country.
We first met when he was a lawyer and a member of Maryland House of Delegates and I was a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun back in the mid-1980s. At the time, Baltimore was on the cusp of electing its first black mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke, and Cummings was a major supporter. He was excited about the significance of having a black mayor in Baltimore. I remember him being even more excited years later when he became one of the first black members of Congress to support Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
The idea of a black mayor, and later a black president, were once probably more unthinkable for Cummings than most of us. Cummings was born and raised in Baltimore amid not only rigid segregation, but also stinging poverty. For him, the struggle wasn’t just an academic or rhetorical exercise. He lived it.
His parents had been sharecroppers in South Carolina on land that their forebears worked as slaves, and he said they had no formal schooling. Like so many other African Americans, they ventured to Baltimore in the 1940s in search of a better life. Cummings’ father eventually landed a job as a laborer at a chemical plant, and his mother worked in a pickle factory, and later as a domestic.
When Cummings started school, he struggled and was assigned to special education classes. He said that a counselor once told him he was too slow and spoke too poorly to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer. The observation hurt, Cummings said, but it also made him more determined to succeed.
He faced some raw racism, but he always found a way to move beyond it. When he was a young man, he helped integrate an all-white pool in South Baltimore, despite being attacked with rocks and bottles. He once told me a story about a job he had at an all-white country club. He said one of the other black employees either slipped into or decided to take a swim — I can’t remember which — in the pool. When he was found out, the club not only fired the employee, but emptied and refilled the pool. As he told the story, Cummings was not just angry at the club’s racism, but also incredulous about the sheer stupidity it represented.
Despite the many obstacles he faced, Cummings went on to attend one of Baltimore’s premier public high schools, and he later went on to Howard University. Cummings would sometimes tell audiences that he was born in Baltimore, but Howard made him a man.
He would also talk about the kindness of a Jewish drug store owner who employed Cummings when he was in high school. Doc Friedman, as Cummings called him, later paid Cummings’ application fee to Howard. Once Cummings was in college, every few weeks Doc Friedman would send him a $10 bill with a simple note attached. It said: “Hang in there.”
Cummings did that and more. He went on to be an honors graduate of Howard, and then on to law school back in Baltimore. Eventually, he became managing partner at a small Baltimore firm, where he always seemed to be returning the kindness and encouragement that helped lift him up.
“Elijah was always one of those people who kept his convictions in front of him,” his former law partner Edward Smith told me. “He also was firm in his belief that no matter how low someone started, they could always rise up. For that reason, he always had his hand out to help people.”
Smith recalled that Cummings would regularly write $1,000, $2,000 or $3,000 checks from the firm’s account to help people. “It drove our comptroller crazy, because he would never reconcile it,” Smith said. “But that is the kind of open heart he had.”
Cummings served in the state legislature for 13 years before being elected to Congress in 1996. He was taking a seat with an auspicious history. His predecessor Kweisi Mfume was a rising star in Congress who resigned to take the helm of the NAACP. And before Mfume, the seat was held by Parren J. Mitchell, a storied black congressman perhaps best known for helping black businesses get a larger share of federal contracts. It’s fair to say Cummings more than lived up to their example.
Rep. John Lewis, summed up Cummings’ legacy this way: “There was no greater friend to the poor, to the lost, to the left out and left behind, than Rep. Cummings.”
In July, when Trump launched a series of tweets and comments assailing Baltimore as “rat and rodent infested,” the congressman did not rise to the bait. Instead, he condemned leaders who would use “racist language” and urged them to work together for “common good.” He also offered to take Trump on a tour of Baltimore — an offer that the president never took up.
Even as he rose in stature, Cummings always remained close to Baltimore’s grassroots. His home was on the edge of one of Baltimore’s most violent neighborhoods, and he was horrified by the city’s staggering rate of gun violence. He fought for young people to have second and third chances, but he also was bewildered by the troubled trigger pullers out there, some of whom brag about “collecting souls.”
Despite that, Cummings’ optimism never dimmed, even in recent years as his health failed, forcing him to get around in a wheelchair and stand with the help of a walker. He would always talk to young people about lifting themselves up. He believed he had no choice. As he often said, young people “are messengers to a future we’ll never see.”