By the time Representative Elijah Cummings left the pulpit during the funeral services for Freddie Gray, on April 27, 2015, he had delivered a word, as the church elders are prone to call it. “I’ve often said our children are the living messages we send to a future that we will never see,” the congressman told the congregation of New Shiloh Baptist Church, in Baltimore. “But now our children are sending us to a future that they will never see. There’s something wrong with this picture.” Gray, who died on April 21st, a week after sustaining injuries while in police custody, at the age of twenty-five, had become a symbol for the relationship between black people and the police in Baltimore, and beyond. (Charges against officers who were involved were later dropped.) When I visited the city, two days before his funeral, it seemed to be edging toward detonation. Not long after I arrived, a protest march wound through downtown, then past the courthouse and the inner harbor, before concluding in sporadic rioting just outside Camden Yards, where the Orioles play. I watched from an overpass, as groups of young men smashed the windows of police cars, and officers in riot gear marched toward the demonstrators. The violence there resulted in two people being injured and a dozen arrested.
At Gray’s funeral, Cummings reminded the audience that he knew intimately the loss they were experiencing. “Family, there are those who will tell you ‘Don’t cry.’ I’m not gonna say that. I put my nephew in a grave four years ago,” he told them. “Blasted away—still don’t know who did it. I mourn every day.” Cummings’s ability to speak to that moment and its indelible hurt underscores the reason that Baltimore itself began grieving on Thursday morning, as its residents awoke to the news that the congressman, aged sixty-eight, had died, a few hours after midnight.
Pay attention to the responses to outrages involving police and African-Americans and you begin to see patterns, especially among elected leaders. Some seize on the national spotlight, making scripted displays of unity. Others tend toward bureaucratic responses and a reflexive defense of flawed institutions. A small number possess both the honesty and the insight to speak truthfully. Cummings belonged to that number. He was seemingly everywhere in the chaotic aftermath of Gray’s death: on the streets, cautioning people to protest peacefully; in the pulpit, offering a balm to the people Gray left behind; and chastising those who set fires in protest of the state of affairs that allowed situations like those surrounding Gray’s death to arise in the first place. Mostly, though, he was present, a powerful politician who still spoke like a concerned neighbor, a man who was so identifiably and devoutly a product of the communities he represented that at times he seemed to be the only person capable of credibly speaking to the hostilities that Gray’s death had brought to the surface.
The obituaries made note of his achievements on the national stage: that he was a twelve-term representative of Maryland’s Seventh District and that he chaired the crucial House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of the committees directed to conduct an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Cummings grew up in Baltimore, graduated from Howard University, with honors, before earning a law degree at the University of Maryland, and then served for fourteen years in the state legislature, before running to replace Representative Kweisi Mfume, when he left Congress to head the N.A.A.C.P., in 1996. What most struck me about Cummings, however, was the role that he played in shepherding Baltimore through the aftermath of Gray’s death. In the past decade, the city’s population has shrunk by eighteen and a half thousand people; more than sixteen thousand houses stand empty. The poverty rate is nearly twenty-four per cent. The city was immortalized in “The Wire,” which was the most nuanced and profound meditation on the decline of American cities and a catalogue of the reasons people were fleeing cities like Baltimore. In short, it is a place that, like the rest of America these days, is badly in need of visionaries.
In July, when Trump assailed Baltimore, in typically crude and hyperbolic fashion, as a “rodent-infested mess” where no human would want to live, he was providing an object lesson in the very stereotypes that Cummings had devoted himself to fighting. He invited Trump to visit his district and offered to spend an entire day chaperoning him around Baltimore and its suburbs to clarify the President’s vision of what the place was all about. (Trump did not take him up on the offer.)
One other thing: democracy. Cummings, in his speeches, particularly those he gave in the past few years, insistently invoked it, and not in the inert way that elected officials tend to. He spoke of democracy as something vital and fragile and valuable, an inheritance that had to be safeguarded for future generations. When he spoke of HR-1, the exhaustive election-protection bill that the Democrats introduced in January, as their first piece of legislation of this Congress, he mentioned his ninety-two-year-old mother, who had died a year earlier. She was a former sharecropper, who implored him, “Do not let them take our votes away from us.” He viewed his chairmanship of the House Oversight and Reform Committee as part of the battle to protect voting rights. His death unleashes a flurry of speculation about whom the Democrats will choose to next lead the committee—Representative Carolyn Maloney, of New York, will serve as the acting chair—and how that person will oversee its portion of the impeachment inquiry. Those matters will be resolved at a future date. What remains clear is the void that Cummings’s absence leaves in his district and his country. This would have been the case at nearly any point in his quarter century in Congress. But it’s even more acute in this one. In a fiery bit of oratory delivered at the introduction of HR-1, he pledged to “fight to the death” in defense of voting and, thereby, democracy. It was a promise that he made good on.
Featured image: Representative Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, was identifiably and devoutly a product of the communities he represented. Photograph by Justin T. Gellerson / NYT / Redux