By Gabi Montgomery
The Honorable Elijah Cummings was a fervent civil rights advocate and American politician who served in the United States House of Representatives for Maryland’s 7th congressional district from 1996 until his death in 2019. Cummings passed away due to complications from ongoing health problems on Thursday, October 17, 2019, in his home city of Baltimore, Maryland. Born the son of a sharecropper in 1951, Cummings will be remembered for his iconic rise as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and as chairman of the United States House Committee on Oversight and Reform. His life’s work, both inside and outside of Congress, was dedicated to improving the lives of the most marginalized individuals in society.
Cummings began advocating for civil rights at a young age when he and his peers helped to integrate a swimming pool in Baltimore. After graduating from Baltimore City College High School in 1969, Cummings attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he continued his advocacy work by becoming a political activist on campus. Cummings held student leadership positions all four years of his undergraduate career including positions on the George W. Carver and Meridian Hill Hall judiciary boards, sophomore class president, Howard University Student Association (HUSA) Treasurer, and HUSA President.
Another integral part of his campus life was his membership in Phi Beta Kappa. In reflecting on his life, Dr. Peggy Beecham, a fellow ΦBK member from Howard University and retiree of an inspiring 42-year scientific and medical career, remarked that his upbringing and campus involvement made him extraordinarily exemplary of the organization’s values, saying, “in addition to the Phi Beta Kappa, his upbringing and family values, and his faith combined to produce an extraordinary individual.”
Other ΦBKs remember him fondly as someone who exemplified the motto “Love of learning is the guide of life.” Ruth Shoge is a proud Howard University alumna and former classmate of Congressman Cummings. Shoge’s professional career led her to become Dean of Library and Academic Technology at Washington College, a position which she retired from after many years of successful oversight and meaningful contribution. Shoge spoke patiently of her departed friend and classmate:
“His fervent and unflinching belief in fairness and justice for all persons was evident in all aspects of his work, such as being a tireless advocate for civil rights in the streets of Baltimore and for democratic principles in the halls and chamber of Congress. He was a learned man with fire in his soul, softness in his heart, and a passion for life. President Obama alluded to Cummings as kind and compassionate and noted that, “There is nothing weak about looking out for others. There is nothing weak about being honorable. He will rest with the giants who have gone on before him.”
Cummings carried ΦBK‘s values with him throughout his career. Upon graduating from Howard University, he achieved his childhood dream of becoming an attorney. In 1996, he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates where he became the youngest elected chairman of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, and the first African American in the history of the state to be named Speaker Pro Tempore. He then rose to the United States House of Representatives where he continued his legacy of fierce advocacy for Black people in chairman of the United States House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and he eagerly led early impeachment inquiries into President Donald Trump. Cummings’ political roles did not diminish his civil rights advocacy. In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death by police brutality in 2015, Cummings advocated for justice for Gray and urged protesters to demonstrate safely.
Elijah Cummings is survived by his widow Maya Rockeymoore-Cummings and his three children. Even in death, his courage continues to inspire a new generation to fight for what is just and fair.
Gabi Montgomery is an English major at Howard University. Howard is home to the Gamma of the District of Columbia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.