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The Life and Legacy of Representative Elijah Cummings

“Did anybody recognize Freddy when he was alive?” Did you see him?! Did you see him? Did you see him?” Standing on the pulpit of the New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, Representative Elijah Cummings was not afraid to raise his booming voice at the funeral of Freddy Gray, the Baltimore resident who died from injuries suffered in police custody in 2015. Cummings’s words forced those sitting in the pews and those watching around the nation to wrestle with the way that black men are often treated as invisible in life yet sensationalized by the media in death. “I mourn for what could have been,” Cummings said. “We will not rest until we see justice done.” 

As the nation reflects on the life of Representative Cummings after his passing on October 17 from long-term health challenges, his eulogy of Gray has once again come into focus. Amidst his clarion calls for justice that echoed throughout the speech, it becomes clear that the three words, “Did you see him?,” were emblematic of Cummings’s entire life’s work to make the humanity of each American visible. 

“I’m feeling the same things that I felt when these white folks down in South Baltimore were throwing rocks and bottles at me. But now, I feel like it’s the president of the United States doing it.”

Baltimore, July 2018

From an early age, the future congressman worked to heal his racially splintered city of Baltimore. When he was 11 years old, he braved mocking, heckling, and a shower of bottles and rocks from white mobs as he and other black youth in Baltimore protested for the integration of a local swimming pool. He had wanted his own humanity and the humanity of his fellow black Baltimoreans to be recognized. And when Cummings recounted this story in July 2019 after his city was attacked as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” on Twitter by President Trump, he made sure that Baltimore’s history and its growth as a city were seen as well.

“Our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see… Will we rob them of their destiny? Will we rob them of their dreams? No—we will not do that.”

From the first steps of his legislative career, Cummings helped his constituents see themselves reflected in their leaders. He became the first black member of the Maryland House of Delegates to serve as the speaker pro tempore, the representative who chairs in the absence of the speaker. Before that, he was the youngest chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus in the Maryland House of Delegates. Cummings served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1983 to 1996, when he was elected to Congress to represent Maryland’s 7th district. During his tenure in office, Cummings served as the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and later of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. 

“What does [‘doing our best’] mean? What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces, can’t take a shower? Come on, man. What’s that about? None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings.”

Before the House Oversight Committee Hearing, July 2019

Though Cummings’s symbolic importance as a black leader in Congress and the Maryland House of Delegates is undeniable, his substantive work to ensure that the humanity of every individual was valued was perhaps the most important thread throughout his legislative career. A prominent civil rights leader on the House floor, Cummings used his position to amplify the voices of workers and unions; he spoke frequently and fondly of the legacies of A. Philip Randolph and other black labor leaders. Even as his health deteriorated in the last year of his life, Cummings showed up, walker in hand, to labor protests and marches. He was also one of the loudest voices in Congress pushing back against the Trump administration’s immigration policy that separated children from their parents at the southern border, fighting to make sure that even the most vulnerable individuals were seen and heard by his colleagues in Congress and Americans around the country. 

“Even if you believe immigration should be halted entirely,” Cummings boomed at a June 2018 House Oversight Committee Hearing, “we all should be able to agree that in the United States of America, we will not intentionally separate children from their parents. We will not do that. We are better than that. We are so much better. We should be able to agree that we will not keep kids in child internment camps indefinitely and hidden away from public view. What country is that? This is the United States of America.” 

In more recent months, Cummings took on a central role in the impeachment inquiry  into President Trump, even working from home when his health prevented him from making it to Washington. 

“We need to get away from party and deal with each other as human beings.”

Regarding his friendship with Representative Mark Meadows, February 2019

Cummings also worked to make sure that on an individual level, people truly saw each other, even from different sides of the political aisle. When the House Oversight Committee heard testimony from Michael Cohen, the former personal lawyer to President Trump, Representative Rashida Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, accused Representative Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, of pulling a “racist” stunt by having a black employee from the Trump administration stand behind him at the hearing. Cummings quickly stepped in, calling Meadows “one of [his] best friends,” and implored Tlaib to clarify that she was not calling Meadows a racist. The next day, Meadows and Tlaib were seen talking and hugging on the House floor. Cummings succinctly explained his magic work, “Interaction, man. Human interaction, that’s all.”

“In the House, Elijah was our North Star. He was a leader of towering character and integrity, who pushed the Congress and country always to rise to a higher purpose, reminding us why we are here.”

Nancy Pelosi, October 18, 2019

As Cummings lay in state in the United States Capitol on October 24 as the first African American lawmaker to receive this honor given to only a handful of government and military leaders throughout history, thousands of visitors waited in line to pay their final respects to the man who made them feel seen.