In the summertime, Baltimore can be hot as blazes with humidity to match. Trying to cool off in a public pool would be quite an ordinary outing for an 11-year-old boy. But for young Elijah Cummings in 1962, it turned into a nightmare in the still largely segregated city. White adults and children resisting integration yelled, “Go back to where you came from” — sound familiar? — to children and, over the heads of a police line, threw rocks and bottles, one of which caught young Elijah in the face.
That day taught Cummings he had rights, he later said, and it made him determined to become a lawyer despite teachers who dismissed his dream as impossible. With strong parents and supporters such as his boss at a drug store, who paid his college admission fee, Cummings fulfilled that dream and so much more.
The experience and the lesson he learned from it told you a lot about the boy who would become the man, a fighter for justice and a leader with a sense of right and wrong, even when there was a price to pay — lasting physical and emotional scars, reminders of work left to be done.
For those who hail from the at once charming and confounding Maryland city, Cummings’ passing at the age of 68 is a special loss. His Baltimore was my own, a place dear to his heart and mine, despite its faults. My superficial relationship with him as a journalist was deepened, whether he knew it or not, by that special connection.
When he called his parents, former South Carolina sharecroppers with scant formal education, “two of the most brilliant people that I know,” I thought of my dad with his eighth-grade education, of whom I could say the same. So much of what Cummings said and lived resonated.
Baltimore sometimes seems less a major metropolis than a collection of neighborhoods, including, when I was growing up there, some I would not set foot in, knowing I would be chased out with a racial slur or worse. It was a place where home was not always safe. Like Cummings, our family’s house was broken into. In our case, we figured out the culprit was a neighborhood kid with a drug problem so, remembering the sweet child he had once been, we decided not to press charges.
That’s Baltimore, too, a reality Cummings lamented and worked hard to change.
Like Cummings, I was quick to defend the city’s quirky charms when a president decided to attack it wielding a laundry list of stereotypes — while refusing to take up Cummings’ offer to accompany him on a tour. And though I moved away and he stayed, I never turned away from what will always be my hometown and appreciated how hard Cummings worked for his constituents.
In his neighborhood, people knew Cummings as more and less than an important politician, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. They trusted him and his heart.
When protests and unrest followed the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, outsiders swarmed, competing for the best live shot of a burning CVS. Cummings criticized those — and that includes many in my profession — more interested in black death than black life, in all its history and complexity.
“Did you see him? Did you see him?” Cummings asked at Gray’s funeral. “I’ve often said, our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see,” he said. “But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see. There’s something wrong with that picture.”
That Cummings had friends on both sides of the aisle is no surprise; politicians of both parties rushed to praise and mourn him. And though I winced the time he came to the rescue of one of his friends, Rep. Mark Meadows, when the North Carolina Republican tried to prove his racial bona fides by displaying a “black friend,” I understood.
Cummings’ friends tried to express just what he meant to them, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling him a “North Star.” Pelosi might now be associated with San Francisco and the Left Coast, but she grew up learning politics as a member of the D’Alesandro dynasty in Maryland. “My brother in Baltimore,” she called Cummings, and said: “When Chairman Elijah Cummings spoke, America listened. He pushed each and every one of his colleagues to work for a higher purpose.”
Former President Barack Obama said in a statement: “Steely yet compassionate, principled yet open to new perspectives, Chairman Cummings remained steadfast in his pursuit of truth, justice, and reconciliation. It’s a tribute to his native Baltimore that one of its own brought such character, tact, and resolve into the halls of power every day.”
Cummings’ extraordinary closing remarks at the hearing of former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen captured his toughness, compassion and sense of history. He expressed concern for Cohen’s family, and brought a bit of his hometown into his advice for a man facing prison time: “I know it’s got to be painful, being called a rat. And let me explain, a lot of people don’t know the significance of that, but I live in the inner city of Baltimore, all right? And when you call somebody a rat, that’s one of the worst things you can call them because when they go to prison, that means a snitch. I’m just saying. And so, the president called you a rat. We’re better than that. We really are.
“And I’m hoping that all of us can get back to this democracy that we want, and that we should be passing on to our children, so they can do better than what we did.”
Though the president issued a complimentary statement that, considering his recent streams of demeaning insults, was hardly worth the paper or computer it was written on, at the very least it proved Donald Trump realized, as Arthur Miller once wrote, “Attention must be paid.” He did not need to make the comparisons others surely would.
One of the last official acts of this man, this African American, this Baltimorean, was signing “two subpoenas for documents related to a temporary end to a policy change that allowed some immigrants with severe health issues to remain in the U.S.,” CNN reported, following recent heartbreaking testimony from young people most affected.
It’s fitting that the man who could trace that scar he earned that hot day in Baltimore was still fighting for children at the end, leaving an example of intelligence, moral clarity, and courage, and challenging others to follow.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.