There are progressive members of Congress who cast good votes in favor of economic and social and racial justice and peace and the planet, and who understand this to be the purpose of their service. Then there are members of Congress who see those good votes as the starting point for a service that embraces struggles and engages with movements outside the Capitol.
House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chairman Elijah Cummings, who died Thursday morning at age 68, was one of those activist members. He is being honored for his able work on the congressional committee that is charged with holding the powerful to account. But it should be remembered, as well, that he spent an extraordinary amount of time on picket lines and at rallies, at worksites and in union halls with workers who have had few congressional allies so diligent and determined as the Baltimore Democrat.
Cummings cast the right votes, against going to war in Iraq and the Patriot Act, for wage hikes and voting rights. He joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus and proudly served during the 108th Congress as the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He defended the system of checks and balances, during Republican and Democratic administrations, emerging in recent weeks as a key figure in the impeachment inquiry that is now targeting President Donald Trump.
Cummings, who made it his mission to defend the interests of federal workers, had tried harder than most Democrats to find common ground with Trump—hoping to identify ways where they might work together to protect the US Postal Service and prevent government shutdowns. “Mr. President,” he told the newly elected Trump in their one meeting, “you’re now 70-something, I’m 60-something. Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels. The thing that you and I need to do is figure out what we can do—what present can we bring to generations unborn?” But Trump rewarded that outreach with one of the cruelest outbursts of his awful presidency—a vile attack on the Oversight Committee chair and his hometown.
After Democrats took control of the House in 2019, Cummings led increasingly focused and effective inquiries into the Trump administration, and the president grew enraged. Last July, he attacked the representative as “a brutal bully” and claimed that Cummings had “done a very poor job” and “failed badly!” as a member of the House since 1996. A veteran of the civil rights movement who recalled being “spit upon, threatened and called everything but children of God” when he and other African American children participated in marches to integrate a public pool in Baltimore, Cummings would not have paid much mind to the presidential bluster. But when Trump attacked Cummings’s beloved Baltimore—describing the city as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being” would choose to live—the representative raised his deep, resonant voice in defense of his constituents and his community:
“Those at the highest levels of the government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior. It only creates more division among us, and severely limits our ability to work together for the common good,” Cummings declared in an August 7 speech at the National Press Club.
“As a country, we finally must say that enough is enough—that we are done with the hateful rhetoric, that we are done with the mass shootings, that we are done with the white supremacist domestic terrorists who are terrorizing our country and fighting against everything America stands for,” he concluded. “We are all sick of this.”
It was a powerful moment, one of many that impressed upon the people of Baltimore and the nation the representative’s absolute devotion to the community where his parents, sharecroppers from Clarendon County, South Carolina, had settled after moving north. Yet those of us who covered Cummings over the years will remember the other moments when he displayed his solidarity with civil rights marchers and union members who were struggling outside the glare of the cameras.
Few members of Congress showed up so frequently at rallies to defend the US Postal Service. Cummings hailed the service in epic, sometimes poetic terms, as “one of America’s most treasured and trusted public institutions,” and he reminded postal workers and presidents, “The Postal Service reaches every corner of every state, touches the lives of millions Americans and truly binds our nation together.”
Even as he was ailing in the past year, Cummings would show up with his walker to march with workers. It was a passion of the lawyer and former state legislator who spoke often of the work of African American labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph to link the struggle for worker rights with the struggle for civil rights.
When workers and their unions were under attack, Cummings used his increasingly powerful position in Congress to highlight their struggles and to assure that they were treated fairly. It was his purpose to restore a measure of equal justice under law to a Congress that is too often biased in favor of corporate interests and their powerful political allies.
In the spring of 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker appeared before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, at a time when Walker was attacking public employee unions in the state and crusading nationally against organized labor. Walker said in his formal statement and in response to questions from committee members that his efforts to restrict the collective-bargaining rights of unions—including moves to prevent them from collecting dues, maintaining ongoing representation of members, and engaging effectively in political campaigns—had nothing to do with politics. Asked specifically by Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly if he “ever had a conversation with respect to your actions in Wisconsin and using them to punish members of the opposition party and their donor base,” the Republican governor replied, “No.”
A year after Walker testified to the committee, video surfaced showing Walker explaining to a major donor in Wisconsin in January 2011 that his anti-labor initiatives were part of a “divide and conquer” political strategy to undermine organized labor and agreeing that the goal was to turn Wisconsin into “a completely red state.”
In May of 2012, I wrote a piece for The Nation headlined, “Did Scott Walker Lie Under Oath to Congress?” The subhead read, “He says no. Video says yes.” A week later, Cummings and Democratic members of the committee dispatched a copy of the article and a pointed letter to the Republican chair of the committee, Californian Darrell Issa, demanding an answer to the question. They then wrote Walker, earning headlines in Washington and Wisconsin. The Republicans resisted that accountability moment, but Elijah Cummings had made his point. And he would continue to do so, again and again, when issues of worker rights were at stake.
The representative’s work on impeachment has been vital, and he should be remembered for it. But he should also be remembered for the fights that were perhaps not so well noted but that spoke to his passion for worker rights. Just a few weeks before his death, Cummings observed, “Unfortunately, too many Americans have been left behind in the modern economy. Every month working families scrimp and save, only to struggle to afford childcare; women work hard to only—on average—earn 80 cents for every dollar a man makes; and across the country, labor unions are being attacked and are losing their right to organize.”
The representative concluded, “These hard-working men and women are not forgotten.”
Throughout his service in the House, Elijah Cummings made sure that they were not forgotten and that workers had a voice on Capitol Hill.