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African-American Congressional staffers and representatives, including Representative Mark Veasey (D-TX) (L) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (C) stage a walk out on the steps of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol to protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in Washington December 11, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron   (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - GM1EACC0G0P01
The Avenue

Black-majority cities need more advocates like Elijah Cummings

U .S. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Baltimore’s native son, died Thursday of an undisclosed illness at the age of 68. Cummings leaves behind a distinguished legacy as a legislator, statesman, and civil rights leader, which he demonstrated nobly in his defense of his beloved city and colleagues after President Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about his district this July. A sturdy patriot, his devotion to civil rights and the Constitution motivated his work as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which undertook numerous investigations of the Trump administration, including ongoing impeachment considerations.

As a researcher of Black-majority cities, I can point to few advocates quite like Cummings. His devotion to the disenfranchised, poor, and devalued people of Baltimore and to Black people globally modeled what Black-majority cities need more of.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University in 1973 and completing his J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1976, Cummings practiced as a trial attorney for nearly two decades. He was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1983, serving as chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and the first Black speaker pro tempore in the state’s history.

As an employee at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I met Cummings on the campaign trial during his successful 1996 bid for Maryland’s 7th congressional district in the House of Representatives. He went on to serve on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, and the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

As a researcher of Black-majority cities, I can point to few advocates quite like Cummings. His devotion to the disenfranchised, poor, and devalued people of Baltimore and to Black people globally modeled what Black-majority cities need more of.

After the 2018 midterm elections gave Democrats a majority in the House, Cummings was named chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, becoming a leading figure in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. The legislator attracted the ire of the president earlier this summer after criticizing the administration’s immigration policy separating undocumented children from their parents. In response, Trump tweeted a series of misinformed attacks against the congressman and his district, telling him to focus on cleaning up his “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

In response, Cummings told an audience at the National Press Club, “Those at the highest levels of government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior. As a country, we finally must say that enough is enough. That we are done with the hateful rhetoric.”

After Trump spewed a series of racist tweets on July 14, asserting that four U.S. congresswomen of color “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Cummings likened it to the attacks he faced in the summer of 1962, when racist hordes hurled rocks and bottles at him and other Black children who tried to integrate the Riverside Park Pool in South Baltimore.

“I don’t think these Republicans or Trump fully understand what it feels like to be treated like less than a dog,” Cummings told The Baltimore Sun.

Reportage of Cummings’s passing has characterized his exchanges with Trump as a personal feud. But the congressman’s responses to Trump’s racism should not be viewed as a beef.

Cummings didn’t fight Trump. Cummings fought for justice. The president’s derision epitomizes a commonly held view of Black-majority cities that Cummings pushed back against. Blaming Cummings for the conditions of those cities is an abdication of the responsibility to address historical and modern discrimination that Black-majority cities face. Those conditions the president tweeted about are a direct result of decades of disenfranchisement, revealing little as to the efficacy of current political leadership.

Cummings fought tirelessly for resources that were denied based on the notion that Black-majority Baltimore was not worth the investment.

Cummings fought tirelessly for resources that were denied based on the notion that Black-majority Baltimore was not worth the investment. For instance, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who described Cummings as “a fierce advocate for civil rights and for Maryland for more than three decades,” also advocated for spending cuts to infrastructure projects in Baltimore and surrounding counties. “What has been happening—taxing and spending and pouring millions into the city—has not helped,” Hogan said in 2014. “It has really hurt. There’s no businesses, there’s no jobs. The city’s declining rather than improving.”

These comments are reminiscent of then-candidate Trump’s appeal to Black America when he said, “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58% of your youth is unemployed—what the hell do you have to lose?”

Not surprisingly, Hogan cut $36 million in funding for city schools. The governor also pulled the plug on Baltimore’s Red Line transit project in 2015, which Cummings advocated for, choosing instead to fund the Purple Line light-rail project in Montgomery and Prince George’s County. Again, Cummings engaged in battles that were much larger than any one person.

Mainstream attitudes and policies throttle economic and social growth in Black-majority cities. Baltimore and other cities like this have so much to offer. If we saw value in people and communities like Cummings did, we would realize the dreams that racism represses.

Rest in Power, Elijah Cummings. Thank you for your beliefs in and service to Black communities.

Allison Hardebeck contributed vital research support for this post. 

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