Maryland Carey Law Faculty Reflection in Honor of Congressman Elijah Cummings

We are professors at the University Maryland Carey School of Law in Baltimore. Congressman Elijah Cummings was a proud alumnus of the law school. A hallway at the law school features an exhibit, Maryland’s First Black Lawyers: 1877-1977. Curated by our colleague Larry Gibson, who taught and mentored Congressman Cummings in law school and beyond, one of the photographs shows the Congressman in the 1970s, open-collared shirt, full mustache and a full head of hair, speaking forcefully into a microphone. We know, given all that Congressman Cummings exemplified, that he was giving voice to one of the critical issues of those times.

Congressman Cummings’ life is best captured by three of the narratives that defined his start and finish: obstacles, opportunity, and leadership. Since his passing, many have reflected on his humble beginnings. One of seven children born to parents who were sharecroppers in South Carolina, Congressman Cummings grew up during de jure segregation in Baltimore. At only 11 years old, he was pelted with rocks and bottles thrown by a white mob when he helped integrate the city’s Riverside Park pool.

What is less known is that Congressman Cummings struggled in school when he was a young student. He was forced to take special education classes in elementary school and was tracked away from classes that best matched his potential. His early education experience was no different than the countless Black boys and girls who, at the youngest ages, continue to be shuttled into classes that expect very little of them and demand even less. Fortunately, in high school at Baltimore City College, Congressman Cummings found resources and mentors. People believed in him and expected him to excel. He flourished. More importantly, he found opportunity. Opportunity and talent then took him to Howard University, where he served as Student Government President and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1973. He then moved on to our law school, graduating in 1976.

Congressman Cummings utilized his obstacles and opportunities to lead. He served as the first African American in Maryland to be named Speaker Pro Tem of the Maryland House of Delegates and, since 1996, served Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Throughout his life, he spoke to the critical issues of the day with urgency, ferocity, and love.

While Congressman Cummings served our country with distinction he was, at his core, a son of Baltimore. We saw his leadership firsthand in the hours, days, and months following Freddie Gray’s death on April 19, 2015. Congressman Cummings walked the streets of Baltimore urging peace to residents while also demanding justice. He eulogized Freddie Gray and during the funeral asked this poignant question: Did anyone recognize Freddie when he was alive? This question, which spoke to the suffering and voicelessness of too many young Black men, should haunt all of us.

In September 2016, soon after the Department of Justice released its horrifying report that detailed some of the many abuses long inflicted by Baltimore’s police department on the city’s Black residents, Congressman Cummings co-hosted a Town Hall meeting with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and the law school. The meeting drew hundreds of Baltimoreans who recounted their brutal experiences with the BPD over the years and decades. DOJ lawyers were in the audience and used the stories they heard that evening to further their negotiations with the City of Baltimore, which ultimately led to the consent decree that now binds, and is seeking to transform, the BPD.

In addition, several faculty at the law school, in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, developed and taught a course that focused on some of the myriad issues of injustice imposed on communities in Baltimore. Congressman Cummings made it known that he wanted to guest teach one of the classes. He felt compelled to share with the students his efforts to address the various issues impacting his city. He and then-Baltimore City Councilman (now Delegate) Nick Mosby co-taught the class. It was truly an impactful moment; two sons of Baltimore from different generations talking about the beauty and resilience of Baltimore, while expressing their righteous anger about conditions that confined communities. Congressman Cummings implored our students to be change agents.

Throughout his life Congressman Cummings fought for Baltimore, cried with Baltimore, and rejoiced with Baltimore. He used his opportunities and talents to lead, to inspire, and to agitate. Truly selfless, he reached back as he climbed.


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