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A Leader for Our Times

Remembering US Congressman Elijah Cummings

Rep. Elijah Cummings speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, August 7, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

America has lost a hero at a time when they are in great demand but in short supply. I, along with other hero seekers, stood in the long and solemn line at the United States Capitol building in Washington to pay homage to Congressman Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee, who died on October 17.

As I stood in that line, which eventually wound its way through the Capitol Rotunda and Statuary Hall, I couldn’t help but think about what the loss of Rep. Cummings means to democracy in the US and what it says about the need for leaders who, despite immense criticism and personal attacks, push forward in an effort to do what is right to protect the interests of the nation’s most vulnerable. 

When I went to Clint, Texas with a group of lawyers several months ago to interview immigrant children in detention, I heard harrowing stories of mistreatment that underscored a general disregard for providing even the most basic needs for children in distress. We came back and publicly reported what we had witnessed.

It was Cummings, in his role as Oversight chairman, who immediately called for hearings to get to the bottom of what was happening. He did not hesitate to speak truth to power when he directly and zealously confronted then-acting Department of Homeland Security chief, Kevin McAleenan, about how such atrocities could take place in the US, and demanded to know what was being done to immediately fix the problem.

It was Cummings who, after the media was ablaze with comments from President Donald Trump criticizing the city of Baltimore, which Cummings represented in the House of Representatives for over 20 years, did not take the bait and engage in a war of words. Instead, he took to the streets to uplift and praise his community.

The life and legacy of Congressman Cummings is a reminder to us all of what true leadership should mean. It is about keeping the focus on the needs of the people and not the needs of the powerful. It is showing up and standing up even at the risk of suffering immense criticism and attacks on one’s personal character. It is demonstrating that leadership is not about self but about others. These are lessons we would all do well to remember and embrace in honoring the life and legacy of the Honorable Elijah Cummings.

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