From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Rep. Elijah Cummings Rose from Segregated Childhood to Powerful Political Voice in Baltimore, Washington
Date October 20, 2019 12:00 AM
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[ U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings — the son of sharecroppers who rose
to become a House committee chairman and Baltimore icon — often
spoke of the need to leave a legacy for “generations unborn."]
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REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS ROSE FROM SEGREGATED CHILDHOOD TO POWERFUL
POLITICAL VOICE IN BALTIMORE, WASHINGTON  
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Jeff Barker
October 17, 2019
Baltimore Sun
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_ U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings — the son of sharecroppers who rose to
become a House committee chairman and Baltimore icon — often spoke
of the need to leave a legacy for “generations unborn." _

Elijah Cummings said his mother urged him from her deathbed to
protect voting rights., Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

 

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings — the son of sharecroppers who rose to
become a House committee chairman and Baltimore icon — often spoke
of the need to leave a legacy for “generations unborn,” but said
he was unsure how his own contributions might be remembered.

“I’m here for a season and a reason," the veteran Democratic
lawmaker said this summer in his Capitol Hill office, sitting below
framed photographs of civil rights leaders Nelson Mandela and Coretta
Scott King. "I don’t know why I’m here, I don’t know how long
I’ll be here, but I’m here. And I’m going to make the best of
it.”

Colleagues defined Cummings’ legacy as his devotion to Baltimore and
civil rights, and his adherence to civility in a fractured political
climate, even as he pursued an impeachment inquiry into President
Donald Trump from his role as chairman of the House Oversight and
Reform Committee.

Cummings, 68, died about 2:45 a.m. Thursday due to complications from
longstanding health problems. He was a patient of Gilchrist Hospice
Care, a member of his staff said.

“He used to always say, ‘Our children are our living messengers to
a future we will never see,’” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
“He wanted to be sure that that future was going to be better for
them and that they would bring with them our values.”

Other members of Congress said Cummings would be remembered for
preaching calm, and his frequent exhortations of “We are better than
this!”

He “brought peace where there was no peace,” House Majority Leader
Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said on the House floor. He
recalled Cummings walking the streets of Baltimore, counseling against
violence during unrest following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from
injuries suffered in police custody. Cummings was among the speakers
at Gray’s funeral, asking people if they truly “saw” Gray before
he died.

His constituents framed his legacy as that of a father figure and a
civil rights icon, ranking him with the late Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“He stood up, put himself out there so we could get a better life,"
said Matthew Hubbard, 45, a barber in West Baltimore.

As part of his own thinking about his legacy, Cummings said he tried
to set an example for younger members of his committee, such as the
outspoken progressives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna
Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

“One day, they’ll be sitting in Pelosi’s shoes,” Cummings
said. “Nelson Mandela said ... the greatest person and the strongest
person is the one who was able to hold their emotions in when they
feel they should strike out. And I believe in that. If you ever hear
me raise my voice, it’s because I believe that somebody is trying to
get something over on me.”

Cummings had been absent from Capitol Hill in recent weeks while he
was sick. But his death came as a surprise, as it was not known
publicly he was in hospice care, when medical and other services are
provided for people who are terminally ill. Cummings’ staff did not
say why or when he was moved to hospice care and did not respond to
questions about the cause of death.

Bishop Walter Thomas of New Psalmist Baptist Church, where Cummings
worshiped for nearly 40 years, said he spoke with Cummings as he was
going into hospice and said the congressman was there “for only a
matter of hours.” Thomas declined to comment further, citing
pastoral confidentiality.

The congressman’s wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, said in a
statement that “he worked until his last breath.”

Cummings had not participated
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a House roll call vote since Sept. 11. He missed a key committee
hearing in mid-September, and his office said then he had undergone a
medical procedure. Statements from his office suggested he would be
back in a week or so, and later that he would return when the House
came back Tuesday from a recess, but Cummings did not appear.

“I did not know he was this gravely ill,” said Larry Gibson, a
University of Maryland law professor and civil rights activist who
knew Cummings for more than 50 years and said he spoke with him last
week. “He would tell me I was his mentor. He was my brother. He was
my friend.”

Cummings had other health issues in recent years. In 2017, he
underwent a procedure to correct a narrowing of the aortic valve
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the heart. The surgery led to an infection that kept him in the
hospital longer than expected. He was later hospitalized for a knee
infection, but he said this summer that his health was fine. In recent
years, Cummings used a wheelchair to get around and braced himself
with a walker when he stood.

According to state law, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will need to
announce plans by Oct. 28 for a primary and a general election to fill
the vacancy.

The committee Cummings chaired is among three panels leading the
impeachment inquiry of Trump, a Republican. Under House rules, Rep.
Carolyn Maloney of New York becomes acting chairwoman because she
ranked second in seniority on the committee, said a senior Democratic
leadership aide. A caucus process to elect a permanent chair has not
yet been announced.

Previously a trial attorney and Maryland state delegate, Cumming had
been a member of Congress since 1996. He became a national figure in
2019 as chairman of the committee. With Democrats assuming the House
majority after the 2018 elections, he won the ability to demand
documents related to Trump’s personal finances and policies, as well
as possible abuses at federal agencies.

Hogan called Cummings “a fierce advocate for civil rights and for
Maryland for more than three decades. Congressman Cummings leaves
behind an incredible legacy of fighting for Baltimore city and working
to improve people’s lives.”

In the U.S. House, Cummings voted in 2002 against a U.S. military
invasion of Iraq, citing insufficient evidence that the country had
weapons of mass destruction. He chaired the Congressional Black Caucus
in 2003 and 2004.

Cummings was a staunch advocate for transit, which he viewed as
crucial for providing a “better future” for Baltimoreans,
especially those living in the city’s impoverished areas. The
congressman urged Amtrak to move forward
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the renovation of Baltimore’s Penn Station, which he said “should
be an economic engine," and was a staunch supporter of the proposed
Red Line, a planned east-west light rail project in Baltimore that
Hogan canceled.

Cummings clashed with Trump and his administration over a number of
issues, including the high cost of prescription drugs, a longtime
concern of his. His committee engaged in a protracted court fight with
the administration over subpoenas — challenged by the president —
of Trump’s personal and financial records.

Cummings said he had just a single one-on-one conversation with the
president. It was in 2017 when both were working on plans to lower
drug prices.

The Democrat recalled saying: “Mr. President, you’re now
70-something, I’m 60-something. Very soon you and I will be dancing
with the angels. The thing that you and I need to do is figure out
what we can do — what present can we bring to generations unborn?”

Cummings resented Trump’s tweet over the summer that four Democratic
congresswomen of color — Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib and Rep.
Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — should "go back” to other countries. He
said it recalled the summer of 1962
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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.

“I don’t think these Republicans or Trump fully understand what it
feels like to be treated like less than a dog,” Cummings told The
Sun.

In July, Trump began a weeklong series of tweets and comments
attacking the congressman, his hometown of Baltimore and his
congressional district
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which Trump called “rat and rodent infested.”
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chose not to respond directly, but in a National Press Club speech
decried “racist language” used by the nation’s leaders and urged
them to “work together for the common good.”

“God has called me to this moment. I did not ask for it,” he said
in the speech.

In a tweet Thursday, Trump sent his “warmest condolences” to
Cummings’ family and friends and said: “I got to see first hand
the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political
leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not
impossible, to replace!”

Cummings was known for his booming — and sometimes intimidating —
observations during committee hearings. He did not hesitate to tell
witnesses when he thought they were dodging his pointed questions.

“I felt like you were trying to pull a fast one on me, I’ve got to
be honest with you, man,” Cummings told U.S. Commerce Secretary
Wilbur Ross in March during a hearing into how the Trump
administration came to develop a census question — later withdrawn
— about citizenship status. Ross said he had testified truthfully.

Cummings was born in 1951 and raised in Baltimore, where he continued
to live. He was one of seven children of Robert Cummings Sr. and Ruth
Elma Cummings
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who were sharecroppers on land where their ancestors were enslaved.
The couple moved to Baltimore in the late 1940s from South Carolina.
Cummings often told a story of how his mother had witnessed Americans
beaten while seeking the right to vote.

“Her last words were: ‘Do not let them take our votes away from
us,' " he said.

As a child, Cummings struggled in elementary school and was assigned
to special education courses; he wanted to be a lawyer, but a school
counselor recommended trade school. However, after showing promise in
high school at Baltimore City College, he won Phi Beta Kappa honors at
Howard University in Washington. He earned a bachelor’s degree in
political science. He graduated from the University of Maryland School
of Law and passed the state bar in 1976.

Cummings joined a small Baltimore law firm and later set up his own
practice, pooling expenses with two other lawyers. He soon
transitioned to his second aspiration as a public servant.

In 1982, with the support of several established city officials,
Cummings ran for state delegate and won. He served in the General
Assembly for 14 years and became the first African American in
Maryland history to be named speaker pro tem of the House of
Delegates.

In late 1995, Cummings decided to run in the 7th Congressional
District after Kweisi Mfume announced he would resign to become the
head of the national NAACP. The present district boundaries encompass
parts of the city of Baltimore and sections of the counties of
Baltimore and Howard.

“Common law and experience teach us that politics change people, but
Elijah was a person who changed politics. He put a human face on it.
He made it real,” Mfume said.

As he rose to political prominence, Cummings struggled with finances.
For two winters as a congressman, he said, he lived without heat. He
told The Sun in 1999 that was in part because he was helping to
support three children: two daughters and a son.

His daughters graduated from Howard, Cummings’ alma mater. He posted
a photo in 2016 in honor of his youngest’s graduation day, saying on
Twitter: “I was so proud to watch my daughter, Adia, walk across the
stage."

Cummings was an active member of New Psalmist — he was there
habitually, sitting up front, for an early Sunday service — and was
married to Rockeymoore Cummings, who was elected chair of the
Maryland Democratic Party in December
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“It’s been an honor to walk by his side on this incredible
journey,” his wife said in her statement. “I loved him deeply and
will miss him dearly.”

Thomas, longtime pastor of New Psalmist, said he was waiting to hear
from Rockeymoore Cummings on funeral plans, but expected the service
would be held in the 4,000-seat sanctuary.

_Jeff Barker is The Sun's Washington correspondent and a business of
sports reporter. A University of Pennsylvania graduate, he formerly
worked for AP and as the Arizona Republic’s Washington
reporter.Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Colin Campbell,
Jacques Kelly, McKenna Oxenden, Jonathan M. Pitts, Frederick N.
Rasmussen, Lillian Reed and Talia Richman contributed to this
article._

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