October 20, 2019 ― I mourn the passing of U.S. House of Representatives member Elijah Cummings (D-MD). He may have been one of the last powerful lawmakers who, at this tumultuous time for our nation, combined a passionate commitment, a steady civility, and his personal experience of oppression to be a beacon for how congress should work.
I had the privilege of serving with him years ago as he was working his way up the congressional ladder. More importantly, I observed, as did so many citizens, the way he conducted himself as both the minority and majority leader of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, the main committee for ensuring that the many agencies of government operate effectively and appropriately. His has been the constant voice for “regular order,” the way that the congress is supposed to operate. When Democrats were in the minority, he was the one constantly pressing for open and fair hearings despite White House and majority resistance. As the chair of the committee, he wielded a strong gavel, but also ran the committee as he would want it run were he still in the minority party. Well publicized have been the many ways he forged relationships with those of much different views.
He combined the best of preacher and politician. His moving oratory was always matched by his action. He did not just talk about people in distress, he ran toward the pain. Amidst the anger at the death of Freddie Gray, he walked the riot-torn Baltimore streets with a bullhorn to bring calm— just one visible example of how this leader constantly sought to serve his constituents. The emotional eulogy he delivered hours later would speak to the nation about the pain and anguish in his community. He would not hesitate to call out a wrong; he was also the first to work to correct it.
He was a tireless advocate for education. He knew what challenges he had faced; being told in school that he was a slow learner who would never excel. He created his own organization to provide opportunities for Baltimore children to learn about Israel; another way that he was always opening up new ways for people to understand one another. When I left public office to lead an education advocacy group, he invited me to Baltimore to meet the film producer of “The Wire,” the gritty HBO series that portrayed the dire conditions for many inner-city children. He wanted me to see and hear firsthand, then, of course, he asked me how I could help improve the situation. First Elijah would educate you, then he would enlist you.
The son of southern African-American sharecroppers who moved north for opportunity, he knew the oppression of discrimination and bigotry. This forged his passion for social justice, but he never let the bitterness overcome his commitment to making democracy work for all. Hours before he died, this committee chair was signing subpoenas for a hearing regarding policy changes that could force immigrants with severe health conditions to leave the US. Until the very end, he was fighting to make our system work for all.
All Americans will feel the loss in coming months of this warrior for social justice who fought with courage, passion, and dignity. By his actions, he showed a way through these difficult times. He leaves us the momentum, the model, and a powerful memory. For the sake of our democracy, I pray we carry on all three.
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