My sadness in the passing of Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings is deeper than I usually feel for a politician upon their death. The last time I felt so strongly was at the news of the passing of Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordyn in 1996. Perhaps that’s because I don’t think of Barbara Jordan and Elijah Cummings as politicians. Barbara Jordan was a Stateswoman, and Elijah Cummings was a Statesman, apparently the last of a dying breed.
A Statesman such as Elijah Cummings cares about his country more than his career. A Statesman will not hesitate to speak truth to power when others wait and weigh the political cost of doing so. A Statesman fights for justice for the people he represents in his district, his state and his country, as well as for people seeking safety and asylum from the violence and corruption of a foreign country. A Statesman is by definition a humanitarian. A Statesman will rise immediately and unequivocally to call out crimes against humanity such as his government’s separation of children from their parents and their internment in camps for an indefinite period of time. A Statesman upholds the Constitution of the Unites States and protects his country from all enemies, foreign and domestic; especially domestic.
Elijah Cummings died at the age of sixty-eight. That’s far too young; it’s a sober reminder that none of us is promised one more day. As I’ve read, researched and listened to statements and speeches delivered by Congressman Cummings, I’ve discovered several references he made to the limited time he had in this world. Addressing a commencement at Morgan State University, an Historically Black University located in his beloved city of Baltimore, he told the new graduates, “At sixty-eight, I have now lived longer than I will live. Your lives are in front of you – and so I beg you to go out and stand up for this democracy.” At the age of 68, everyone has more time behind them than ahead of them. Congressman Cummings’ health had not been good. Perhaps there was reason for him to believe his time might be short.
The circumstances are obviously very different, but I can’t help but think of the foreshadowing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech, given the day before he was assassinated. In it, Dr. King told an overflowing crowd in Memphis, Tennessee, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead … but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” Elijah Cummings was doing everything in his power to see that America got back on track toward that Promised Land; he was doing everything in his power to save this democracy.
From his hospital room, Congressman Cummings continued his responsibilities as Chair of the House Oversight Committee leading the impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump. From what would be his death bed, he lead a Democratic Caucus conference call, and signed subpoenas summoning witnesses in the impeachment process. In that same address to the graduating class at Morgan State University, Congressman Cummings said: “This fight for the very soul of our democracy has been raised … by the actions of the President of the United States of America, both while in office and, it may still be determined, by his prior conduct. Congress must reassert our constitutional power and obligation of oversights.” In the politics of the Nation’s capital where hand-wringing, self-preservation, capitulation, and outright cowardice have become the answer to tyranny, Elijah Cumming stood large and proud in stark contrast to the chief architect in the downfall of democracy: the President of the United States, Donald Trump. The most formal way to introduce a member of Congress is with an honorific. America, may I present the Honorable Elijah E. Cummings. How can we help but juxtapose the Honorable Elijah Cummings to the most Dishonorable Donald J. Trump? On hearing of Cummings’ death, one of his principal Republican opponents in the House, former South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy tweeted, “Elijah Cummings was one of the most powerful, beautiful & compelling voices in American politics. The power and the beauty came from his authenticity, his conviction, the sincerity with which he held his beliefs.”
Of the many qualities that family, friends, and colleagues have recounted; of the many accolades bestowed on him; of the many powerful messages in the speeches he made in the House Chamber; in churches and in the streets of Baltimore -- to me, none is more poignant than Elijah Cummings’ first speech from the floor of the U. S. House of Representatives as a freshman congressman. It was brief, eloquent, and poetic. The then-new Congressman Cummings told his more seasoned colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives that his mission was to empower people by helping them to realize that the power was within them. Then he shared a poem authored by Dr. Benjamin Mays that he said defined who he was. He’d recite it to himself 20 times a day sometimes:
I have only just a minute, sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it.
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.
The Chamber erupted in cheers and enthusiastic applause, as members rushed to greet him. That was twenty years ago, and Elijah Cummings never wavered from his mission. There was no foreshadowing of an early demise; just the deep truth of how short and precious is the time we have to make this world a more just and loving place for all who inhabit it. It has nothing to do with the measure of our days. It has everything to do with the quality of our hearts, the sanctity of our integrity, the strength of our resolve, and the persistence of our actions in every minute of however many minutes we have left.
A final observation on Statesmanship: A Statesman shows compassion, even in situations that seem to beg for condemnation. Congressman Cummings addressed Michael Cohen, former legal counsel to Donald Trump, at the end of Cohen’s scathing testimony against Trump at the House Oversight Committee Hearings. During those hearings, Cohen had been derided and called everything but a child of God by Cummings’ House colleagues, even as Cohen confessed his own actions and admitted the wrongness of his actions on behalf of Donald Trump. Cohen exposed Trump’s dishonestly, depravity, and disregard of the law, and said he now refused to protect Trump anymore. Elijah Cummings did not pile on. Instead, he affirmed Michael Cohen’s path to redemption in a rousing oratory. Cummings said Mr. Cohen wants to “make sure our democracy stays intact …. If we as a nation did not give people an opportunity after they made mistakes to change their lives, a whole lot of people would not do very well.” Cummings continued, specifically addressing House Republicans, “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?” Upon Barbara Jordyn’s untimely death in 1996, then-President Bill Clinton said, "Barbara always stirred our national conscience." Coincidentally, in a Washington Post opinion piece on Congressman Cummings immediately after his death, the title read: Elijah Cummings was the keeper of the nation’s conscience. The name Elijah means “Yahweh is my God.” In all the Abrahamic scriptures, which includes the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, and the Islamic Quran, the Prophet Elijah is much revered in large part because he saved the religion of Yahweh from being corrupted.
A Prophet is an ambassador of God. The foundation for all the Prophets is their understanding of the law and the covenant between God and the People of God. Prophets give both hope and warning to the nations. Elijah was a one of the greatest of Prophets. Prophets speak truth to power, often unwelcome truths. Prophets are the keepers of a nation’s conscience. What happens when a nation loses its conscience? The scriptures are quite clear on that question – bad things happen! Prophets bring warnings; and America, we are being warned. Bad things are upon us, and it’s going to get much, much worse if we don’t find the courage and tenacity to act. As Elijah Cummings repeated many, many times in his last years, “We are better than this!”
Prophets also bring hope. Congressman Cummings said in his inaugural speech to his colleagues in the House of Representatives that his mission was to empower people by showing us that the power is within us. I believe Congressman Cummings would demur at being called the conscience of America. I think he’d rather be remembered for reflecting the conscience of America. We give thanks for your empowering life, Elijah Cummings. Be with us.
© copyright Beverly Spears, 2019