When Strength and Dignity are Enough: Elijah Cummings, in memoriam 

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Mourners watch as the flag-draped casket of Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is brought out of the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, Md., after his funeral service on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019.  Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP. Thumbnail photo by Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP.

Mourners watch as the flag-draped casket of Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is brought out of the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, Md., after his funeral service on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP. Thumbnail photo by Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP.

In 1962, an 11-year-old black boy sustained a cut to the face. The injury was sustained when this young boy and some other friends, all of whom were black, protested the segregation of a pool in South Baltimore, Maryland. For their defiance, the boys were attacked by a mob of white protestors. This boy, the one who had to view the literal scars of racism every day, was Elijah Eugene Cummings, who passed on the October 17, 2019. 

Elijah Cummings was a pioneer and an activist. From his earliest pushes for equality to his final year spent as Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Mr. Cummings worked tirelessly for the good of his constituents — the citizens of Maryland’s 7th Congressional District — for the country, and for black people around the country for whom he was a shining example of perseverance and integrity. “There is nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There’s nothing weak about looking out for others. There’s nothing weak about being honorable.” These words, delivered by former President Barack Obama at the funeral of Representative Elijah Cummings, speak to the legacy the chairman left behind.

Born Jan. 18, 1951, Elijah Cummings was the son of sharecroppers and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. While the current President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, has called Baltimore a “rodent-infested mess” where “no human being would want to live,” for Mr. Cummings, Baltimore was his community, and one he knew through kindness and compassion he could work to improve. Upon graduating from Howard University, Mr. Cummings enrolled in the Law School of the University of Maryland, where he graduated in 1976. After decades spent as an attorney, Mr. Cummings was elected to the United States House of Representatives in April 1996, when he won in a special election.

In the last few years, Mr. Cummings had arisen as a voice of reason in and among the sometimes vile political discourse surrounding both President Trump and his growing opposition. Mr. Cummings was a staunch believer in finding common ground and striving to be better, no matter the situation. It’s easy to find differences, very easy,” Cummings once said. “We need to take more time to find common ground.”

Perhaps the most poignant example of Mr. Cummings’ compassion came during the testimony of Michael Cohen, the President’s onetime fixer. Unlike many of his colleagues in the House Oversight Committee, Mr. Cummings chose to relate to Mr. Cohen on something they both shared: Being parents. As Mr. Cohen was sentenced to three years behind bars, a picture was taken of his daughter on crutches exiting the courthouse. To this, Mr. Cummings responded with a heartbreaking show of sympathy.  

“Let me tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man that thing, man that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you. But I’m just saying to you — I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.”

Instead of reprimanding Mr. Cohen, or placing blame on him for what he had done wrong, Mr. Cummings chose to treat a supposed adversary with kindness. He continued this behavior, something he had practiced for decades, until his final moments. 

As his time on Earth came to close and impeachment drew closer, Mr. Cummings was said to “still be joining strategy discussions with colleagues from his hospital bed,” according to the New York Times. Duty, for the Chairman, never took a break. In his final hours, Mr. Cummings announced that he planned to subpoena acting United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli and acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matthew Albence to testify on the condition of migrant families at the border. These subpoenas, delivered to him in Baltimore in his final day, demonstrated Mr. Cumming’s fierce determination to righting wrongs, something he had worked at since he was 11 years old and fought for his right to use a swimming pool.

In an age of fractured political discourse and hate speech, Elijah Cummings was a beacon of hope. Whether you are black or white, male or female, able bodied or disabled, you can derive a strong lesson from Mr. Cummings about what is means to be human, to fight for what’s right and to do that work with compassion. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We will keep up the fight.  

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Julia Markfield is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at julia.markfield@uconn.edu.

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