America Owed Better to Elijah Cummings

Representative Elijah Cummings.
Representative Elijah Cummings. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Among the cruelest features of working in policy is the heightened stakes of being outlived by your opponents. Rivalries aren’t just matters of personal animus, though they’re often that. They carry the weight of governing, the risk of clashes left unresolved that implicate the fate of human lives, populations, and even nations. This is especially true for black Americans. One way of looking at our history in the U.S. is as a slow and fitful accumulation of rights. These rights are often conditional and contingent, but access to a broader range of housing, education, social, and employment opportunities is hard to dispute, as is the muting of many forms of violence that defined enslavement and Jim Crow. The compression of these advances into a few decades’ time has meant tumultuous changes for those who’ve survived them, including the black organizers and leaders who helped usher them in. But it has also vivified the costs of regression for them, knowing firsthand how bad things can get. So it was with Elijah Cummings, the Baltimore-area U.S. representative who died on Thursday at age 68, just as the first term of the most openly racist presidential administration in recent memory was coming to a close.

Cummings’s foil was Donald Trump, the Republican commander-in-chief whom he’d been tasked with investigating as chair of the House Oversight Committee. Back when he was running, Trump anchored his campaign — fueled by the slogan, “Make America Great Again” — to a tacit glorification of an era before black people had anything resembling equal rights, and white dominance went largely unchecked. He has since comported himself like a return to such a time was his goal. Regular features of his presidency have included efforts to erode the political power of nonwhite people and the wanton use of pejoratives to describe them, casting Muslims as terrorists, Latinos as criminals, black people as “shithole”-dwellers, and his nonwhite political opponents as conditionally American. Cummings was a direct target of these attacks. In July, Trump lambasted him for criticizing conditions in the administration’s migrant detention camps, claiming instead that “[Cummings’s] Baltimore district is FAR WORSE,” calling it “a disgusting rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live,” and which federal funds are being stolen from. (Trump provided no evidence for the latter claim.)

Cummings weathered the insults and continued his work, which recently became central to a broader House impeachment inquiry into Trump’s conduct. But he did not live to see its outcome. Rather he died, having witnessed immense progress in his own life, amid a concerted effort to erode it, with no idea whether the man who most embodies that effort will be defeated. Much is made in America of upholding the ideals advanced by the best who came before us — whether it’s the so-called Founding Fathers or those who sought to ensure that their proclamations about liberty and justice were more than hollow platitudes. But one of racism’s most venomous features is that it doesn’t require smart, competent, or even very committed people to easily undermine their work, or to let black people who survived the Jim Crow era to die, without peace, during a resurgence of its supremacist attitudes.

History owes us nothing, suffering doesn’t automatically make us virtuous, and evidence that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice is dubious at best. But it’s hard to argue that Americans who claim fealty to a set of common principles rooted in freedom owe nothing to the black people who forced their country to reckon with its own violent hypocrisy during the mid-20th century, and those who survived that reckoning. We owe them peace. And Cummings was one of them. Growing up in Baltimore, one of six children born to South Carolina sharecroppers, his childhood was marked by indelible experiences with racism and its fallout, including being stopped by police while out past curfew following the riots of 1968, when he was still a teenager. Every day after work at a chemical plant, his father would come home and sit in the car for an hour, parked outside the family home. Cummings eventually asked him why. “He told me that he was often treated badly at work, dealing with discrimination, and he didn’t want to bring those things, any bitterness, into our home,” the late congressman told Baltimore magazine.

At age 11, Cummings became involved with efforts to integrate a local swimming pool, which were met with the staunch and sometimes brutal resistance of his white neighbors. According to the Washington Post, mobs numbering upward of 1,000 angry white locals protested, brandishing signs that read “Keep our pools germ free” and “White people have rights too” while throwing rocks and bottles at black would-be swimmers. “[These] were adults,” Cummings remembered. They “called us every name you can imagine, everything but a child of God.” Cummings was struck in the head by one of their projectiles. “The injured child, who received a face cut during a brief scuffle at the Riverside Park pool, was driven from the scene in a police cruiser,” the Associated Press reported at the time. Cummings bore a scar above his eyebrow from the incident for the rest of his life. But the more important element that lingered was his encounter with a fellow dissident, a renowned NAACP lawyer named Juanita Jackson Mitchell. “I declared in that moment that I was going to become a lawyer,” Cummings said. And he did, practicing law for years before deciding to run for office.

When Cummings eulogized the slain Baltimorean Freddie Gray in 2015, a police killing that sparked the second citywide riot in his lifetime, he talked about the messages that modern-day Americans are sending through their behavior to the inhabitants of tomorrow. “I’ve often said that our children are the living messages we send to the future we will never see,” the congressman said, “but now, our children are sending us to a future they will never see. There is something wrong with that picture.” Gray was 25 when he died, the victim of an ongoing refusal to ensure the safety of America’s most vulnerable as a principle. The election of Trump is another. His political movement is predicated on the denial of grace and safe haven to those he deems unworthy. Cummings’s generation of black people is among the last to have witnessed the horrors of Jim Crow, who saw it fall and its topplers go from reviled troublemakers to national heroes. He died knowing that many of the advances achieved during his youth are still under assault. That the peace which accompanies leaving his country in responsible hands, guarded by leaders invested in preserving those advances, evaded him as he succumbed to illness is a profound betrayal of all he’s done to make us better.

America Owed Better to Elijah Cummings