Who will carry Rep. Elijah Cummings’ torch?
(Photo of DNC Convention in 2008 by Fickr by Tory)
BALTIMORE – In a week in which Elijah Cummings goes to his grave, I’m remembering a rainy afternoon years ago with Kweisi Mfume, the man who preceded Cummings as 7th district U.S. Congressman out of West Baltimore.
And I’m thinking about a speech Cummings gave when he ascended to that congressional seat. The speech was about the American dream. It barely hinted at the astonishing history of West Baltimore’s political journeys.
“Only God,” Cummings said, “could create a path where the son of two sharecroppers from Manning, S.C., could rise to represent the people of the 7th congressional district in the United States of America.”
That path is long and rugged and sometimes runs through West Baltimore’s broken alleys.
One was located off Robert and Division streets. That’s where Mfume grew up. On one long-ago rainy afternoon, it’s where he spotted a crippled old man walking along.
“Hey, Bop,” the congressman called out to the old man. The two of us got out of Mfume’s car. The old man leaned on a metal walker for support. He and Mfume embraced warmly and talked about some distant days, and then the old man asked if he could have a dollar.
“I’m not going to the liquor store with it,” he said, though no one had asked.
Mfume gave him some money, and in a few minutes, the old man hobbled along. “Old Bop,” Mfume said as we got back into his car. “You know something? He’s 15 years younger than me. He’s 29 years old.”
In the West Baltimore of Mfume and Cummings, people sometimes age in awful ways. Mfume’s father disappeared early. Mfume lived his adolescent years in a row house where the gas and electric were always getting turned off and Mfume or one of his three younger sisters would pull down the curtains so neighbors couldn’t see they were using candles. And then one night, Mfume’s mother died right there in his arms.
Now Elijah Cummings dies, at 68, and I think, too, of Parren Mitchell, the man who preceded Mfume as the congressman out of West Baltimore. Mitchell came from another alley, straight out of poverty, and of legend.
In his youth, the Mitchell family lived on Stockton Alley, in a house with no electricity. When it rained, the alley turned to mud. The father worked as a waiter, and the mother took in laundry.
From the alley, they moved to Bloom Street. Kerosene lamps kept the dark at bay. Parren’s older brother, Clarence Jr., slept in a room euphemistically called a bedroom. It was the bathroom. The Mitchells were happy to have indoor plumbing.
Parren Mitchell served with the 92nd infantry division in World War II. He was wounded in Italy. In 1950, he had to sue the University of Maryland to gain entrance as a graduate student. He became the first black person enrolled at the college’s main College Park campus.
The older brother, Clarence Jr., spent his life lobbying for racial fairness in housing and employment for the NAACP. He lobbied so hard, and so well, that he became known as America’s 101st senator.
And Parren Mitchell became Maryland’s first African-American congressman and the man who preceded Mfume and Cummings in the U.S. Congress. They form a lineage of the American dream come to life, in spite of all that surrounded them.
Think about Cummings’ sharecropper parents, or Mfume’s absent parents or Mitchell’s family, among the most remarkable of the 20th century. All were part of that same impossible dream.
Cummings’ parents left their sharecropper roots and moved to Baltimore, where they became preachers of the gospel. Cummings’ father made his living at a chemical company, where he had to put up with routine racist outrage of post-war America.
When he came home each evening he sat in his car for a long time, just to blow off the anger lingering in his system. As Cummings later characterized it, his father didn’t want to bring the bitterness of the day into the home.
As a U.S. congressman, Cummings took his frustrations and his anger to Washington. He remembered his father’s lessons. He checked his bitterness at the door.
In a time of so much political division, we should look to Cummings’ example for his healing words and manner. And we should look to Maryland’s 7th congressional district for some of Capitol Hill’s most inspiring visions of the American Dream.
And we can begin to wonder who will assume that legacy now.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.