Maryland Carey Law mourns the loss of Elijah E. Cummings ’76

Dean Donald Tobin and the entire Maryland Carey Law community are profoundly saddened by the loss of beloved alumnus Elijah E. Cummings ’76. 

“Congressman Cummings was a true lawyer-leader who taught us that we can only be our best selves if we are fighting for those most often left behind and overlooked,” says Dean Tobin, remembering an impassioned speech the congressman gave at the law school, urging students to use their JDs to do good in the world. “His legacy of compassionate leadership is a shining example for us all. He showed us every day how to use the tools gained in law school to lift people up. And he did it because he cared deeply about people—the people of Baltimore, the people of this state and this nation.” 

Cummings maintained a close relationship with Maryland Carey Law throughout his career and was a longstanding member of the Board of Visitors.  

“I watched him again and again give his precious time to our students,” adds Tobin. “He mentored them, taught them, worked with them, and helped them achieve.” 

Some of those students are members of the Maryland Carey Law Black Law Students Association (BLSA), of which Cummings was president during his own law school days. Kayla Johnson ’21BLSA’s current president, says she feels honored to walk in his footsteps. “He has helped to open so many doors, and knowing I hold the same position in BLSA that he held while a student at Maryland Carey Law is inspiring,” says JohnsonHe was a strong leader by example especially during times of chaos and unrest, during the Civil Rights movement and today, he stood tall as a man of great dignity, unity, and compassion. I am extremely grateful for his contributions to Maryland and beyond and will do my best to honor his legacy.” 

In February, the congressman returned to the law school to celebrate the association’s 50th anniversary and honor his dear friend and supporter Prof. Larry Gibson,” whom Cummings considered a mentor.  

In a tribute to Cummings on his Facebook page, Gibson wrote that he didn’t view his relationship with Cummings as one of mentor and mentee, We were simply brothers trying to improve things.” 

Gibson’s comment gets to the heart of what drove Cummings. “My mission is one that comes out of a vision that was created long, long ago,” said the congressman in his first speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996. “It is a mission and a vision to empower people—to make people realize that the power is within them and that they too can do the things they want to do.” 

So respected was the longtime civil servant that he was in a position to take to the streets in the midst of the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, fearlessly calling for peace with his bullhorn. In 2016Cummings returned to his alma mater to co-sponsor a police reform town hall with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Maryland Carey Law, at which more than 200 city residents shared their thoughts and experiences on Baltimore policing with attorneys from the Department of Justice. 

“It is impossible to imagine a member of Congress I trusted more than Elijah Cummings,” tweeted Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and former Maryland Carey Law professor. “He was fiercely committed to Baltimore City, but committed most of all to fighting for justice and opportunity for those living at the margins. LDF has been privileged to work with Rep. Cummings for nearly a decade on housing discrimination, transportation and policing reform issues in Baltimore City. His focus was always on measures that would lift people up.” 

A Baltimore-born son of sharecroppers, Cummings began his career as a civil rights leader when he was 11, organizing protests, which led to the integration of a Baltimore City swimming pool. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University before completing his JD at the University of Maryland School of Law in 1976. Dedicating his life to public service, Cummings spent his early career in the Maryland House of Delegates where he was the first African American in the state’s history to be named speaker pro tem.  

In 1996, he won a seat in Congress in a special election when former Rep. Kweisi Mfume vacated his seat to lead the NAACP. When he passed away, Cummings was in his 13th term passionately advocating for Maryland’s 7th District, and had risen to the powerful position of chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, the main investigative committee in the House of Representatives. He also chaired the Congressional Black Caucus in 2003-2004, leading the group into the national spotlight. 

Fellow Maryland Carey Law alumnus Sen. Ben Cardin ’67 reflected sentiments common at the law school upon learning of Cummings’ passing. “Rep. Cummings and I shared a city, an alma mater, a love of the law and a life of public service,” tweeted Cardin. “I am deeply saddened by his passing, and my prayers today are with his family and loved ones—and the people of Baltimore.” 

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