Your blogger received this tribute to Elijah Cummings from Douglas M. Clemmons, an attorney whose life was changed by his interaction with the late Congressman:
I am sad at the passing of a tireless warrior for the rights and aspirations of all Americans, the Honorable Elijah Cummings.
In 2010 I met him when I was a volunteer coordinator for the Democratic Party campaign in Maryland.
The numerous candidates, especially incumbents who had acquired gravitas, made a great impression on me – I was a young person with no previous political experience and few ties to the State of Maryland.
During the campaign I was given significant responsibility and opportunity to meet political leaders at every level of government. One was Rep. Cummings’ chief of staff, Mr. Vernon Simms.
After the 2010 election, which of course went badly for the Democratic Party, I was greatly discouraged. Fortunately, a good friend suggested I push back against my discouragement by looking ahead and volunteering for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Fortunately, that’s what I did.
One evening at a phone bank in Baltimore, where I now live, Mr. Cummings appeared with several local, state and federal candidates to give the 50 of us a pep talk. The speakers established the local atmosphere, an interesting blend of animus and optimism. Baltimore is a closely knit place where people know their political representatives.
Then Mr. Cummings spoke. He did not need to campaign, given his immense popularity. He was the last to speak to us. I had not heard him before.
He told us how he grew up blocks from where we were in South Baltimore, in the heart of the inner city. His parents were sharecroppers. He told us about his infamous high school career adviser, who told him not to bother applying to college, because “You won’t ever amount to anything.” He told us about his years in college, and then in law school, and his rise through the ranks in Congress and the tasks that faced him and the nation. He enjoyed showing why that high school adviser was not doing his job, and that we need to do our jobs even though others fail us.
When he finished, the crowd rose to its feet with applause, and no one sat down again. Suddenly, strangers became the closest of friends. You could feel the intensity of their hopes of an all-inclusive, well-run government that transcends race and class.
In the warmth of the moment, there was Mr. Simms again, still the Congressman’s chief of staff. He had remembered my face and my work with the campaign and he asked what I was doing. I told him of my discouragement. He said that because the Democrats lost the House, he couldn’t put me on his staff, but he said he would “throw your name around and let’s see what happens.”
Then Mr. Cummings himself came by, his suit damp with perspiration, brow furrowed from exhaustion. It was well past 11:00 pm. Mr. Simms introduced me. Mr. Cummings shook my hand and said a few things about the campaign. Then he took my hand and looked me in the eye and said: “We are living in marvelous times, with President Obama. People will read and write about this moment in history for years to come. But what are you going to do?” The entire time he did not release my hand. I was too awed to answer his question, and just smiled and thanked him, as he moved on to attend to the others waiting to talk with him.
That night I thought about what he said. The word “marvelous” struck me as an interesting word, since on the surface it seems frivolous. Being a child of the 1980s, I thought of Billy Crystal, but then I considered that to “marvel” is to look at something with appreciation and respect and then I realized that this moment was indeed worthy of capturing the imagination of any young man uncertain of his future in America. To this day I remember that moment, and its echo of President Kennedy’s inaugural speech (“Ask not…”). The onus of facing the future was placed where it belonged, in my hands. I felt a sense of empowerment that had been missing from my life for a while. I found out later, as I did the rounds, that Mr. Cummings left this feeling with many others who came in contact with him.
In the next few weeks, as I looked for a paid position by following leads from Mr. Simms, I told people about the campaign and how impressed I was with Mr. Cummings, though I never did work for his Congressional office. It didn’t matter. One person interrupted me mid-sentence and said, “Son, we all work for Mr. Cummings.” I finally landed an internship with another prominent congressman.
In those days, being in the minority was a contentious time for Democrats and Mr. Cummings took the brunt of many attacks. However, he never failed to give a voice to the needs and hopes of those who did not have his eloquence or power. His voice combined the fervor of a southern Baptist minister with the knowledge gained from his seniority on powerful House committees.
Never, during my time in Washington, did I hear one ill word spoken about Mr. Cummings, from either side of the aisle. And though I eventually left Washington to work in the private sector, my association with his name, his legacy and many of his friends has continued, and will continue, to nurture and guide my path. Knowing that the Honorable Elijah Cummings was on my side, and was for a great moment in time my friend, has sustained me. May he rest in well-earned peace, or keep doing his great work from a new vantage point.