This is a recent photo of an image projected on a building of a younger Rep. Cummings taken on a street in his native Baltimore. From an unknown source, projected images and messages appear on the side of a building near my house in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC.
When the news alert came across my cell phone on Thursday morning that Elijah Cummings had died, I felt overwhelming sadness for the loss of a powerful, eloquent, and soulful human who understood trauma in his bones. An immediate second thought was he died too soon as do many other African Americans whose lifespan is shorter by years than white people's. Then I wondered how we can honor his legacy by building on what he started dramatically in the House Oversight and Reform Committee with the first hearing of its kind on July 11 this year (Click here for a story on the hearing in ACEs Connection).
Just the day before the news of Cummings’ death, I had read an email from Dan Press who leads the advocacy work for the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice (CTIPP) updating me and other members of the CTIPP Board about the latest thinking of Cummings and his staff about the advisability of moving ahead at this time with comprehensive legislation on trauma. The strategy was fluid but it was clear that Cummings was engaged and focused on the what, when, and how of promising next steps with legislation.
Even though Cummings was a forceful, clear-eyed, passionate progressive, he managed to have friends and allies in both parties and avoided bitter feuds that kept parties apart. The promise of meaningful, bipartisan trauma legislation has dimmed without his leadership.
Stories of his life were carried on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times and numerous opinion pieces about how his life was an inspiration to so many were carried for days. He will lie in state in the rotunda of the Capitol on Thursday before a funeral service in Baltimore at the New Psalmist Baptist Church where he worshipped for decades.
Tributes came from Presidents Trump and Obama to constituents and journalists—many touched on his unlikely and amazing friendships with people who had opposite political perspectives. Mark Shields and David Brooks on the October 18 PBS News Hour highlighted the connection he made with conservative Trey Gowdy, a member of Congress at the time, over their shared South Carolina roots (Click here for Trey Gowdy’s tribute):
- Judy Woodruff:
Before we go, I do want to raise the passing of Elijah Cummings, Mark, David, somebody who served a long time in the Congress, part of the House leadership, had been in the civil rights movement before then.
I — we just learned tonight that Speaker Pelosi will have his remains lying in state at the Capitol next week.
- Mark Shields:
A remarkable man, a truly remarkable man, I'd say a giant, some would say a gentle giant, eloquent.
But just a quick little anecdote about Elijah Cummings. Trey Gowdy is a white Republican from South Carolina, a fierce conservative, on the same committee. They crossed swords.
They spent time together. And Trey Gowdy said — found out that he'd grown up in the same area of South Carolina as Cummings' family. And he said, why did they leave? And he said, so our children, myself could get an education.
And the conversation ended up with them both in tears.
Now, that doesn't happen in Washington. That doesn't happen, where you have caricature and have cartoon cutouts of your adversaries and just sneer at them. I mean, he was that strong a man, that he could show the weakness and the gentleness of him.
And he will be missed. He was truly the North Star.
- David Brooks:
Yes. And then, when Freddie Gray died in Baltimore a few years ago…
- Mark Shields:
- David Brooks:
… he was at — spoke at the funeral, very impassioned, very righteous about the wrongs that have been done.
But then, when the riots started in the area near where he was living, he went out there with a bullhorn and tried to calm things down, so both strong, but also respecting order and law.]
- Mark Shields:
- Judy Woodruff:
Remembering Elijah Cummings.
Another tribute to Cummings by Paul Kane in the Washington Post titled “Cummings’s legacy: champion for Baltimore, force of nature in Congress” reported that Cummings often asked if people knew the average life expectancy of a black man in America. Kane concluded his piece “It was about 69 years old, the age Cummings would have turned in January.” Various reports said his death was the result of long-standing health problems, others mentioned heart and ligament issues.
Kane’s piece highlighted important aspects of Cummings’ life and history: “His parents were sharecroppers in South Carolina, toiling on the same land where their ancestors had served as slaves. In the 1940s, they moved to Baltimore and raised seven children, sending young Elijah to special-education classes because he struggled in elementary school.” Other articles said his family moved to Baltimore so that the children could receive a better education—an important part of his conversation with Rep. Gowdy that moved both men to tears.
Despite his experience of being placed in special education classes as a child and being told he would “never be able to read or write” as he recalled at the July hearing, he became a lawyer after graduating college Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University. His parents were committed to their children and their education but help also came from other quarters. The Washington Post story reported: The proprietor of a Baltimore drugstore where Mr. Cummings worked paid his application fee to Howard University and, during Mr. Cummings’s time as a Howard student, regularly sent him $10 with a note that read, “Hang in there.”
The same Washington Post story included remarks made by Cummings at the 2015 funeral of Freddie Gray who died in police custody and lived near Cummings in Baltimore: “I’ve often said, our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see,” he said, his voice rising. “But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see! There’s something wrong with that picture!”
In Leah Harris’ article in Mad In America on the July hearing, she highlights two excerpts from the Chairman’s opening statement at the July hearing that capture what grounds his focus on children: “Sadly, I see this every day in my city of Baltimore, where far, far too many of our community’s children are suffering severe trauma, including witnessing violence, or losing parents to violence, incarceration, or substance use.” And this: “As a nation, we have a significant economic incentive and, more importantly, a profound moral imperative to ensure that our children have the opportunity to thrive and succeed.”
Cummings assumed the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Reform Committee in November 2018. Speaker Pelosi has named Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) acting chair.