What Elijah Cummings Meant to Baltimore

Daily Comment

What Elijah Cummings Meant to Baltimore

Representative Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, was identifiably and devoutly a product of the communities he represented.Photograph by Justin T. Gellerson / NYT / Redux

By the time Representative Elijah Cummings left the pulpit during the funeral services for Freddie Gray, on April 27, 2015, he had delivered a word, as the church elders are prone to call it. “I’ve often said our children are the living messages we send to a future that we will never see,” the congressman told the congregation of New Shiloh Baptist Church, in Baltimore. “But now our children are sending us to a future that they will never see. There’s something wrong with this picture.” Gray, who died on April 21st, a week after sustaining injuries while in police custody, at the age of twenty-five, had become a symbol for the relationship between black people and the police in Baltimore, and beyond. (Charges against officers who were involved were later dropped.) When I visited the city, two days before his funeral, it seemed to be edging toward detonation. Not long after I arrived, a protest march wound through downtown, then past the courthouse and the inner harbor, before concluding in sporadic rioting just outside Camden Yards, where the Orioles play. I watched from an overpass, as groups of young men smashed the windows of police cars, and officers in riot gear marched toward the demonstrators. The violence there resulted in two people being injured and a dozen arrested.

At Gray’s funeral, Cummings reminded the audience that he knew intimately the loss they were experiencing. “Family, there are those who will tell you ‘Don’t cry.’ I’m not gonna say that. I put my nephew in a grave four years ago,” he told them. “Blasted away—still don’t know who did it. I mourn every day.” Cummings’s ability to speak to that moment and its indelible hurt underscores the reason that Baltimore itself began grieving on Thursday morning, as its residents awoke to the news that the congressman, aged sixty-eight, had died, a few hours after midnight.

Pay attention to the responses to outrages involving police and African-Americans and you begin to see patterns, especially among elected leaders. Some seize on the national spotlight, making scripted displays of unity. Others tend toward bureaucratic responses and a reflexive defense of flawed institutions. A small number possess both the honesty and the insight to speak truthfully. Cummings belonged to that number. He was seemingly everywhere in the chaotic aftermath of Gray’s death: on the streets, cautioning people to protest peacefully; in the pulpit, offering a balm to the people Gray left behind; and chastising those who set fires in protest of the state of affairs that allowed situations like those surrounding Gray’s death to arise in the first place. Mostly, though, he was present, a powerful politician who still spoke like a concerned neighbor, a man who was so identifiably and devoutly a product of the communities he represented that at times he seemed to be the only person capable of credibly speaking to the hostilities that Gray’s death had brought to the surface.

The obituaries made note of his achievements on the national stage: that he was a twelve-term representative of Maryland’s Seventh District and that he chaired the crucial House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of the committees directed to conduct an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Cummings grew up in Baltimore, graduated from Howard University, with honors, before earning a law degree at the University of Maryland, and then served for fourteen years in the state legislature, before running to replace Representative Kweisi Mfume, when he left Congress to head the N.A.A.C.P., in 1996. What most struck me about Cummings, however, was the role that he played in shepherding Baltimore through the aftermath of Gray’s death. In the past decade, the city’s population has shrunk by eighteen and a half thousand people; more than sixteen thousand houses stand empty. The poverty rate is nearly twenty-four per cent. The city was immortalized in “The Wire,” which was the most nuanced and profound meditation on the decline of American cities and a catalogue of the reasons people were fleeing cities like Baltimore. In short, it is a place that, like the rest of America these days, is badly in need of visionaries.

In July, when Trump assailed Baltimore, in typically crude and hyperbolic fashion, as a “rodent-infested mess” where no human would want to live, he was providing an object lesson in the very stereotypes that Cummings had devoted himself to fighting. He invited Trump to visit his district and offered to spend an entire day chaperoning him around Baltimore and its suburbs to clarify the President’s vision of what the place was all about. (Trump did not take him up on the offer.)

VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER

Translating the Meaning of Presidential-Campaign Songs

One other thing: democracy. Cummings, in his speeches, particularly those he gave in the past few years, insistently invoked it, and not in the inert way that elected officials tend to. He spoke of democracy as something vital and fragile and valuable, an inheritance that had to be safeguarded for future generations. When he spoke of HR-1, the exhaustive election-protection bill that the Democrats introduced in January, as their first piece of legislation of this Congress, he mentioned his ninety-two-year-old mother, who had died a year earlier. She was a former sharecropper, who implored him, “Do not let them take our votes away from us.” He viewed his chairmanship of the House Oversight and Reform Committee as part of the battle to protect voting rights. His death unleashes a flurry of speculation about whom the Democrats will choose to next lead the committee—Representative Carolyn Maloney, of New York, will serve as the acting chair—and how that person will oversee its portion of the impeachment inquiry. Those matters will be resolved at a future date. What remains clear is the void that Cummings’s absence leaves in his district and his country. This would have been the case at nearly any point in his quarter century in Congress. But it’s even more acute in this one. In a fiery bit of oratory delivered at the introduction of HR-1, he pledged to “fight to the death” in defense of voting and, thereby, democracy. It was a promise that he made good on.

Sign up for our daily newsletter and get the best of The New Yorker in your in-box.Submit

Video

Nancy Pelosi on the Impeachment Inquiry Into Trump

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, reveals details of a phone call she had with Donald Trump shortly before she authorized an impeachment inquiry against him, and explains why the timing of the inquiry was right.

Recommended Stories

Daily CommentDonald Trump, Elijah Cummings, and the Definition of a Rodent

Listen to the New Yorker Radio Hour

Buy the Cover

Play the Crossword

Play the Jigsaw Puzzle

SectionsNews & PoliticsCultureBusiness, Science & TechHumorCartoonsBooks & FictionMagazinePhotographyVideoPodcastsMoreNewslettersAboutCareersContactFAQMedia KitPressAccessibility Help

Follow Us

© 2019 Condé Nast. All rights reserved. Use of and/or registration on any portion of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement (updated 5/25/18) and Privacy Policy and Cookie Statement (updated 5/25/18). Your California Privacy Rights. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast. The New Yorker may earn a portion of sales from products and services that are purchased through links on our site as part of our affiliate partnerships with retailers. Ad ChoicesOur sitesAllureArs TechnicaBackchannelBon AppétitBridesCondé Nast TravelerEpicuriousGlamourGolf DigestGolf WorldGQGQ StylePitchforkSelfStyleTeen VogueThe New YorkerThe SceneVanity FairVogueWWired

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.