When a young Elijah Cummings was placed in special education programs at his Baltimore elementary school, he recalled Monday, he felt like “a piece of trash.”
“They told me I’d never amount to anything, that I probably wouldn’t even be able to read or write,” Cummings told a group of more than 100 gathered in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church to commemorate what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 75th birthday. “I was written off, put on a train for a slow ride to nowhere.”
Cummings eventually went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University, earn a law degree from the University of Maryland, practice law for 19 years, win election to the U.S. Congress for five terms, and lead the Congressional Black Caucus.
“I knew that there was something better in me,” he said to vocal affirmations from his listeners. “You have to have a vision of what you can become inside you, and you have to make it happen. That
is the legacy of Dr. King. He talked about values and integrity, about not letting people slip through the cracks, about opportunity. And he worked, putting together piece by piece, a world where a young child could really be all that he could be.”
"Everyone has value"
In a powerful and inspirational speech that honored the words and deeds of the slain civil rights leader, Cummings combined expansive observations about public policy issues with personal stories that prompted, at times, both tears and laughter from his audience.
In one anecdote, he told the story of his then-three-year-old daughter who wanted to play hide and seek with him. His daughter stood before him, placed her hands over her eyes and announced, “You can’t see me now.”
“That’s okay for a three-year-old, but we have someone 57 years old who doesn’t read a newspaper,” he said, referring to President George W. Bush. “We have someone who doesn’t watch the news. We have someone who doesn’t care that we have more than 500 men and women killed in Iraq. They dance through life, never facing consequences, or worrying about right and wrong.”
"Opportunity for everyone."
Cummings also drew on the work of both Stephen Covey, who wrote the best-seller, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
, and Yale law professor Stephen Carter, who wrote the book Integrity
, and identified that virtue as the predominant indicator of strong character.
King, he said, exemplified their advice every day, distinguishing between what was right and what was wrong, and pondering the consequences of his decisions.
“You must act on what is right, even to your own peril,” he said. “Sometimes this is difficult. Sometimes you get caught up in going along to get along. But it was Dr. King who never let that get in the way of his vision. He had a vision that the world could be more fair, more just—that opportunity should be there for everyone, even that little boy sitting in special education.
“He understood that everyone has value. He didn’t say, ‘I’ve got mine, now you get yours.’ He showed people the way. He understood that any one of those kids in a poor school could grow up to be a [late Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall. But so many of them won’t be because they’ve had their dreams snuffed out at an early age.”
Guard against prejudice
Cummings urged his listeners not to become discouraged, or to respond to prejudice by developing biases of their own. To illustrate that point, he recalled a concert he attended at the White House during the Clinton era that featured Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Temptations.
“I was having a good time,” he said. “Then I see this guy come out—a white guy, big hat, jeans, boots that looked like he was going to kick somebody. So I said to my friend, ‘Let’s go. We don’t need to hear this.’ ”
The performer was Garth Brooks, who began to sing while Cummings said he tried to ease out of the room inconspicuously. He was so captivated by the lyrics to the song, We Shall Be Free
, that the next day he found himself in a local Target store, looking for Garth Brooks CDs.
“Martin Luther King is dead, but he lives inside all of us,” said Cummings
Cummings’ talk, which was sponsored by the Lehigh University Office of Multicultural Affairs, was preceded by a reading of King’s essay on the purpose of education offered by Tarence Smith ’04, and two songs from Khayla Lowe ’04, a member of Lehigh’s Gospel Choir.