A lifelong friend remembers Elijah Cummings


Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley remembers his friend, the late Rep. Elijah Cummings.

He would have been surprised at the adulation he received in death.

He never quite believed the popularity that all the pollsters claimed was his in life.

And yet, for all the rough and tumble of urban politics, the heart of Elijah Cummings found its voice in proclaiming unshakeable truths.

Lots of people across Baltimore are feeling like they've known Elijah Cummings their whole life. But I really have known Elijah Cummings my whole life — my whole adult life, in any event.

We first met in Maryland during the statewide campaign of 1986, when he was one of the young, up-and-coming delegates of the Mitchell Westside Team, and I was the 22-year-old field director for Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski's campaign for United States Senate.

After law school, I served as a prosecutor in the District Court of Maryland where — most every week — I would see Elijah Cummings as a defense attorney in my Western District courtroom. Real people, real cases, a lot of sadness, a lot of lives broken by violence, addiction, and poverty. I did my best to always call his clients' cases early. And from opposite sides of the trial table, we did our best to balance the scale of justice for individual people living in an unjust world.

In 2004, we co-chaired a fundraiser in Baltimore for a little known state senator from Illinois who was running for U.S. Senate named Barack Obama. And in January of 2009, that same man stopped in Baltimore on the way to his inauguration as president of the United States.

The crowd on that cold, bright pre-inaugural day was unlike any seen in the heart of Baltimore since Frederick Douglass himself had gathered multitudes near the same spot for the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments a hundred years before. By 2009, Elijah had become the beloved and long-serving congressman from the 7th District, while I had become Maryland's newly elected governor after serving two terms as mayor.

Elijah and I walked out to the podium on the steps of War Memorial Plaza, together, to offer welcoming remarks. The people and the press might not have known, but I did — it was a generous gesture on Elijah's part. For he had been the chair of the newly elected president's campaign in Maryland, while I had sided with the president's primary opponent. He did not have to share that moment, but he did.

Titles can say a lot about a person's character when they are bestowed by people of humble means. To his colleagues in government, he was Elijah, but to the people of West Baltimore he was "Mr. Cummings." Call it a Southern thing, call it a Baltimore thing. It was a title of honor that transcended any elected office. And it was earned by being as patient and kind to those who were in trouble as he was unrelenting and fearless in confronting those who abuse their power.

At his funeral, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called him the "North Star of the House." The parade of other speakers could not resist drawing parallels between Elijah the prophet and Elijah the congressman. Yes, his parents knew what they were doing when they named their son Elijah. Like the Biblical prophet of old, he would rail against the conventions, the cruelties, and the injustice of his times.

But like all great artists, Elijah Cummings would return again and again to just a few main themes: justice, dignity, and generational progress. The truth that we are all in this together. These were the touchstone themes of this man, Elijah Cummings. They were his rock and our salvation. They were, for Cummings, the essence of the country he loved, the country from which we have strayed, and the country he carried in his heart.

"Our children," he would frequently say, "are living messages we send to a future we will never see!" And if ever there were a sleepy crowd who failed to appropriately acknowledge this bedrock truth, Elijah would wake up the congregation or the ribbon-cutting ceremony with preacher-like polemics. "Hello?! Can everybody hear me? I said our children … are living messages we send … to a future … we will never see!" Applause and amens would resound, and the program could then move forward.

But it was the fire of this truth that America saw when Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee, ripped into Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan for the shameful and cruel treatment of refugee children on our southern border.

"Family separation" is the clinical term some use when referring to our own government ripping toddlers from their parents' arms and sticking them in cages.

"You feel like you're doing a great job, right?" he asked McAleenan.

"Is that what you're saying?" the chair pressed.

"We're doing our level best in a very challenging... " the secretary stammered.

"What does that mean? When a child is sitting in their own feces, can't take a shower? None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings!" Elijah thundered.

"I've said it before, and I'll say it again: It's not the deed you do to a child, it's the memory!"

There was no response. There could be no response. The moment hung in the air with the heavy weight of its well-earned discomfort. The secretary's own eyes seemed to well up with tears of bitter shame. So too did the eyes of everyone in the committee room and every decent American watching at home.

And then it came. The punctuation, the closing, the smashing of the false idol, the call to action, and the call to return to our true selves — all rolled into one.

Cummings looked with mercy on the flawed humanity of the witness sitting before him, and, in a plea for redemption, bellowed out, "C'mon, we're better than that!"

It was one of Cummings' time-honored refrains. But it was never uttered in a more heartfelt way or at a more needed moment in our nation's present struggle.

My friend Elijah Cummings was the first African American in history to lie in repose in the U.S. Capitol. His casket was held atop the same catafalque that once held the body of our slain President Abraham Lincoln. Elijah's body would lie in repose in the National Statuary Hall — the old House chambers whose walls had heard the great debates of slavery and union. In our own time of bitter partisan division, Republicans and Democrats alike filed by Congressman Cummings' casket to pay their respects.

The statues of great Americans from the past seemed on that day to form a silent, circular honor guard of history — a history that is watching us.

Down the hall, I walk past the darkened House chambers where Elijah first took his seat so many years before. Then I wait in line at the Capitol office of the majority leader to express my condolences to Elijah's widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings.

John Lewis, the civil rights patriot and congressman, stands in line with me. It is not our first meeting. He once told me that when he shed his own blood for our country during the civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the only book he carried in his student backpack that day was Thomas Merton's "New Seeds of Contemplation."

Remembering our affinity for Merton, I ask the congressman, "What do you think Thomas Merton would say to us as Americans today if he were alive?"

After only a brief moment of reflection, he looked me straight in the eye and said, "'Be faithful.' He would say, 'Be faithful.'"

And so it is — the clock ticks on, and the reputations of some men soar even as their abilities vanish before our eyes.

But some things never die. Some ideas refuse to be buried.

Justice. Dignity. Generational progress. The truth that we are all in this together.

This is still America.

Well done, faithful servant.

Martin OMalley is the former Democratic governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. In 2016, he was a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.