Our nation’s children lost a great champion in Congress when Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) passed away October 17th. He correctly and often called children our living messages to a future we will never see and stood up for their needs throughout his 23 years in Congress. He fought for quality child health care, education, and clean air and water and loudly denounced our cruel policy of separating children from parents at the border and caging them.
In recent months Rep. Cummings was especially visible in defending his hometown after the president called Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform with a significant role in the ongoing impeachment inquiry of President Trump. But in all his positions he stayed focused on doing what he believed right for the future of our children and nation: as he said earlier this year, “I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on, because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children and your children’s children and generations yet unborn, we have got to guard against this moment. This is our watch.”
Standing for children was a natural extension of his commitment to standing for justice and equality for everyone, especially poor people, people of color, and people who have been left out of America’s political system in the past. As the son of former sharecroppers who left the rural South to raise their seven children in Baltimore, Rep. Cummings knew well that education and opportunity are not always equally accessible in America. At age 11 he got a permanent scar above his eye after being hit by a brick as he and several other Black children attempted to integrate a city pool. The same courage that prompted him to stand up to crowds of adults yelling racist slurs at him as a child led him to continue standing up and speaking out against hate and bigotry for the rest of his life. That childhood incident also helped him realize that if he grew up to be a lawyer, he could help change the injustice he saw all around him. A neighbor paid his application fee to Howard University where he became student body president and graduated Phi Beta Kappa before going to law school and pursuing his life’s work in public service.
Elijah Cummings returned to his beloved Howard University often to give the Sunday morning sermon at Howard’s Rankin Memorial Chapel. This past March, he marveled that this year was the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival on a campus as a freshman and said he wanted to speak on what he wished he’d known when he was there. His message was simple: do what God calls you to do. Do what you are called to do even when other paths promise easier shortcuts to wealth or fame, when you are already comfortable doing something else, or when you are afraid. He described how he answered the call to elected office which was not something he’d considered when he began practicing law. He shared a story about his father on the day he was sworn in to Congress which was the first time he had seen his father cry:
“I said, ‘Daddy, why are you crying?’ He said, ‘I kept looking at your hand, and then I looked at my hand…I thought about the fact that when I was a little boy, down there in Manning, South Carolina, they took me out of the classroom in the fourth grade and made me pick tobacco and strawberries and cotton and wouldn’t let me go back to school. I thought about the idea that I picked cotton with the same hand that you’ve got, that the blood that runs through your veins runs through my veins…I’ve never been up in here. Is this the place where they used to call us slaves?’ I said, ‘yes sir.’ ‘Is this the place that they used to call us three-fifths of a man?’ I said, ‘yes sir.’ ‘Is this the place where they used to call us chattel?’ ‘I said, yes sir.’ ‘And they’re going to give you a vote up in here?’ I said, ‘yes sir’…He said, ‘I was crying because now seeing you do what you have done today showed me what I could have been.’”
At the end of his father’s life Elijah Cummings knew that hardworking, self-sacrificing man had set a strong example for his own children and fulfilled what God called him to do. But his father still had that question—what else could he have been? Too many children in our nation, especially poor children and children of color, are still born with unequal chances for success. As a great servant leader, Elijah Cummings fought every day to do everything he could to make sure every child in his district and in America had a better chance to reach her or his God-given potential. That was his calling. It should also be ours if America is to become what America can and must be to provide every child a hopeful future.