Dancing With the Angels

 

Elijah Cummings walks with community leaders in Baltimore 2015 to preach against violence amidst unrest after the murder of Freddie Gray. Photo by David Goldman/AP. Front photo AP

So Sad. We mourn the sudden, too-soon passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings, 68, son of sharecropper parents, beloved Baltimore icon, calm fierce lion of the House, steadfast advocate for human rights, a man of gravitas, empathy, faith, impassioned principle, and deep-seated integrity whose mission in life was to empower others. Raised in a South Baltimore row house in a historically black neighborhood, he attended a lousy still-segregated school and swam in a lousy still-segregated swimming pool until the summer of 1962, when he was among the first kids to integrate the better white one. “People were throwing bottles, rocks, and screaming,” he remembered,  “calling us everything but a child of God.” He also recalled running home on Sundays from the church where his father preached to listen to Martin Luther King's speeches on the radio, and being stopped by police coming home from work during the 1968 riots. He practiced law in Baltimore for two decades, served in Maryland's House, and won his Congressional seat in 1996. Though he served 12 terms, he still returned home to Baltimore every night, a man of his people. "I don't live in the inner city," he said. "I live in the inner, inner city." Till the end, his constituents claimed him as one of their own. “He stood up, put himself out there so we could get a better life," said one. From another, "He was in it for the people."

Once he rose to become powerful chair of the House Oversight Committee, he continued to focus on civil rights issues, his heritage. His Capitol Hill office featured photographs of Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King, and he often recounted his mother's tales of seeing black Americans beaten for seeking their rights as citizens; her last words were, "Do not let them take our votes away from us.” Even as he confronted Trump's crimes and cronies in the House impeachment inquiry, he preached civility amidst the ugliness, insisting, "We are better than this." “He worked until his last breath," said his wife Maya, Maryland's Democratic Party chair, "because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity." Because he also believed "our nation’s diversity was our promise” and we all need to leave an honorable legacy, Cummings repeatedly called out Trump's racism. "When we're dancing with the angels," he liked to posit, "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 say nothing?" For himself, he hoped "they'll be able to write about me that I was a peacemaker and I made a difference." Recalling his father's small, weekly kindnesses to his mother, he relied on their poignant, useful lesson. "Do what you can," he said. "Do the best that you can.” May he rest in power.

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