Keeping Democracy Intact: Honoring and Learning From the Legacy of Rep. Elijah Cummings

By Adrian Flynn

Early last Thursday morning, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland passed away in Baltimore, aged 68. For many, Cummings represented the best of both Congress and the Democratic Party. In his later years as a Congressman, particularly during the Trump Presidency, Cummings made his mark on what he perceived to be a lack of morality and decency in government. Yet because Cummings did not attract as much publicity as many of his younger colleagues, it is plausible that many Beacon students know little of Cummings’ life and legacy. While he had four whole decades of valorous public service spanning from the Maryland House of Delegates to Committee Chairmanship in the House of Representatives, just his leadership in the tumultuous last few years shows what a tremendous loss his death is for both Congress and this country.

As Chair of the House Oversight Committee since January of this year, Cummings oversaw many contentious hearings and testimonies, with the public able to see his devotion to progressive causes and bipartisanship through how he handled his Committee in heated political times. This was particularly displayed during Michael Cohen’s hearing on February 27th. After Cohen provided damning testimony concerning his work as Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Cummings offered empathy to a man who he believed wanted to right his wrongs. Cummings said he tells his kids that “When bad things happen to you, do not ask the question: Why did it happen to me? Ask the question: Why did it happen for me?” And then to Cohen, he said “I don’t know why this is happening for you. But it is my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better.” Cummings then cited the facts of Trump’s record amount of misleading statements and him calling Cohen a “rat” as ways in which we have deviated from normalcy, pleading for people to act and to not stand on the sidelines. He concluded by graciously thanking Cohen for his decision to come forward. 

Additionally, Cummings had a strong sense of morality that is desperately needed in government. On February 6, Cummings spoke strongly in favor of HR 1, a bill meant to protect voting rights and limit corruption in government. He cited his Mother’s last words as being “Do not let them take our votes away from us,” and recounted the history of oppression at the ballot box that has plagued and continues to plague this country and groups of oppressed minorities. He went on to forcefully say “I don’t give a damn how you look at it! There are efforts to stop people from voting, that’s not right! This is not Russia! This is the United States of America!” On July 18, Kevin McAleenan, the former acting Homeland Security Secretary, appeared before Cummings’ committee. After McAleenan said that he was doing his “level-best” of a job he could in regard to the detention of migrants at the border, Cummings strongly retorted, “What does that 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 own children in that position! They are human beings! We are the United States of America… We’re better than that!”

The episode which perhaps got him the most media coverage in the past year was the way he mediated a conflict between Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina. At the same Cohen hearing on February 27th, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina presented Lynne Patton, a Trump Administration member and former member of the Trump organization, to rebut Cohen’s assertion that President Trump is a “racist,” because Patton is African-American. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan took issue with this, saying “The fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber in this committee is alone racist in itself.” Meadows interrupted, asking for her comments to be erased from the record as he found them to be personally offensive. Cummings then took control of the hearing and asked Tlaib if she would like to “re-phrase that statement.” After she cleared up that she was not calling Meadows a racist, but instead saying using Patton as a “prop” was a “racist act,” Cummings said that “Mr. Meadows, you know… of all the people on this committee… I’ve said it and got in trouble for it – that you’re one of my best friends. I know that shocks a lot of people… I could see and feel your pain, I feel it. And so, and I don’t think Ms. Tlaib intended to cause you that, that kind of pain and that kind of frustration.” By these words, Cummings was able to diffuse a toxic situation, which we can all learn from in our handling of future experiences with tense political discourse.

Cummings represented the very best of government, and the only way to carry his message forward is to reach across political and ideological boundaries, fight like hell for what is right, and offer a helping hand to everyone, but especially those who need it. The example he set should not only be reflected in our actions as citizens but also by those in elected office, who are more prone to scrutiny and harsh disagreement. We will need more leaders like Elijah Cummings to maintain dignity and respect for all in this country through a present time of turbulence. To conclude, my favorite quote of the Chairman is: “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? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?” Ask yourself this question truthfully, and make sure to act on it.