``````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````` ` Interview with Congressman Elijah Cummings
Alice Bernstein and mastheads

As published in the East Texas Review.

Congressman Elijah E. Cummings:
A True Representative - Part One

Congressman Elijan E. Cummings"The thing that drives me is a desire to fulfill a mission. My religion teaches me that God has perhaps taken me, a young man like many others - poor, not having a whole lot to hope for - and lifted me up to be an example, to strengthen other people. That's how I view my life."
     These words are from an interview I had with Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Maryland), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Now serving a fifth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was elected with 73% of the vote in Baltimore's 7th Congressional District. I see Mr. Cummings' life and work - he was elected Chair of the CBC this year - as having large meaning for all Americans.
     The CBC was formed in 1969 by the then 13 Black members of the House, to address with one voice "the needs of millions of neglected citizens." Today, 39 members represent 26 million people across this nation, one-third of whom are not Black. They include Maxine Waters (California), Danny Davis (Illinois), and founding members John Conyers, Jr. (Michigan) and Charles Rangel (New York). Called by many the "conscience of Congress," their priorities include creating new jobs and businesses; universal health care; equity in education; strengthening civil rights; homeland and hometown security.
     Mr. Cummings was born in 1951, graduated with honors from Baltimore City College H.S., graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University with a degree in Political Science, then graduated from University of Maryland Law School in 1976 and was admitted to the Maryland Bar that year. He practiced law for 19 years before entering Congress where he serves on numerous boards and commissions. A husband and father, he is an active member of New Psalmist Baptist Church.
     My acquaintance with Elijah Cummings began during the celebration of the centenary of Eli Siegel (1902-78) the American poet and founder of the education Aesthetic Realism. On July 29, 2002 Congressman Cummings entered a tribute "Honoring Eli Siegel" into the U.S. Congressional Record, and spoke of his "contributions to literature and humanity," including "a tremendously successful teaching method...[which] enables people of all races to see others with respect and kindness."
     As a journalist whose writing is based on Aesthetic Realism, I was deeply affected by this tribute. I wanted to know more about the man who gave it and why he felt he could be most effective with a political career. My feeling that many others would also want to know more about him led to this interview, and my first question: What made you want to go into politics?
     Congressman Elijah E. Cummings: "To help people. I grew up very poor. Neither my mother nor father got past the first grade. They were sharecroppers in Manning, South Carolina and were made not to go to school. They spent their lives helping other people. They were very religious; both were preachers.
     "When we were little, my daddy used to go to the orchard and pick fruit for canning - apple preserves, peaches. We actually made jelly - it's incredible when I think about it! Then they took almost half and gave it to other people. In Baltimore my mother worked in a pickle factory and later as a domestic. But even in the hard life, they were constantly giving.
     "Many young men in my neighborhood were going to reform school. I used to watch Perry Mason. Though I didn't completely know what reform school was, I knew that Perry Mason won a lot of cases. I also thought that these young men probably needed lawyers. So back when I was, I guess, around ten I decided to be a lawyer to help people. I went into law, and later politics, in hopes that I could give of myself, be an inspiration to others."
     As Mr. Cummings spoke of his growing up years, I mentioned reading in one of his articles about his father's work.
     EEC: "He worked at Davidson Chemical as a laborer, lifting these heavy drums of various chemicals. He was constantly exposed to all kinds of things that people wouldn't even come close to today.
     "My father lived to be 73. He was a preacher and he'd go to the prison in Jessup, usually the first Sunday of the month, to deliver a sermon to 600 women. This particular Sunday in June 2000 he preached, and then he sat down and died.
     "I live life with a sense of urgency and equate it with a basketball game where you are playing the best you can. There's a clock you can look at and see how much time is left. In life you have to play the game as if the clock that you cannot see will go out at any time. So there's a sense of urgency, to get it done."
     AB: Would you like to mention persons in history and in your life who influenced your desire to run for public office?
     EEC: "One was Martin Luther King. In high school I listened to the radio every Sunday afternoon right after church when they broadcast his speeches. He really gave me hope: an African American man was trying to create opportunities and make it possible to take advantage of them.
     "Opportunity isn't necessarily equal opportunity. African American people may have the opportunity to get jobs they could not have gotten years ago, but without an education you're not going to get them. The movie theater you couldn't go to a while back - fine, now you can go. But if you don't have the money, you can't go, so the result is still the same. Martin Luther King showed me that you could be a strong African American man and make a difference.
     "Another person who influenced me was a Jewish man, Albert Friedman. He owned a small drugstore in South Baltimore and one of the greatest honors for a young person was to work there. Why was that?
     "First, it was one of the best jobs: you worked behind the counter, sold ice cream and, you know, what drugstores sell; and you were trusted with money. All the people who worked for Doc Friedman were African American, and he took a personal interest in us.
     "He introduced me to this concept: You, Elijah, must live in two worlds, able to relate to your own people and relate to all people. You have to have an education, he used to say, then go out in the world and change it. He thought I'd make a good politician.
     "Doc Friedman gave me the funds to apply to Howard University, and every few weeks he'd send a ten dollar bill with a note 'Hang in there.'
     "The sad part is he died just before my graduation in 1973. Years later his daughter told me that before he died, he talked of things he was most proud of and said Elijah Cummings was one person he was very proud of. I just wish he could see me now."  

Continue to part 2 of story.

This series of articles was also published in: 
The Harlem Times, New York Beacon, East Texas Review, Philadelphia New Observer,  La Vida News/The Black Voice (Ft. Worth, TX), Chicago Defender, Milwaukee Times,  Omaha Star, Caribbean Life, Birmingham Times, New Voice of NY, Long Beach Times (CA), Tennessee Tribune, Buffalo Criterion (NY), Carib News, Philippine Post, Madison Times (WI), Black News (SC), Michigan Chronicle, South Carolina Black News