Michael Steele: Celebrating Elijah Cummings, a servant and a leader

Michael Steele: Celebrating Elijah Cummings, a servant and a leader
© Aaron Schwartz

God blesses us with the precious gift of life, and what we do with that gift is the legacy we leave behind. And what a legacy Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsStopgap government funding measure includes census money, military pay raise Maya Rockeymoore Cummings reports surgery was a success, will return to campaign trail The Hill's Morning Report — Public impeachment drama resumes today MORE (D-Md.) has left for us.

Thurgood Marshall once said, “None of us has gotten where we are solely by pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps. We got here because somebody bent down and helped us.”

The legacy Elijah Cummings has given to us is a lesson in bending down and helping others. From the home of a sharecropper he learned hard work, humility and perseverance. When he was at the University of Maryland School of Law, he learned the power of the rule of law and the importance of “justice for all.” On the streets of Baltimore, he learned what happens when a community is forgotten and justice is rare. But the most important lesson he would learn is what it meant to be a servant, and a leader.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Gospels were a core part of Rep. Cummings’s story. It was how he did his job each day — to be of service to others and to “be not afraid,” especially in the face of those who would ridicule him and the work he did on behalf of his community. He would often remind us of the simplicity of his mission: “I want justice, oceans of it. I want fairness, rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

But more important, Rep. Cummings would also hold steady the nation’s moral compass, while keeping his finger on the pulse of his neighborhood and his city, mindful of their problems but also of their possibilities.

While the congressman and I would butt heads from time to time on various policies, when it came to Baltimore we agreed: It was no longer enough to have a seat at the lunch counter, it was time to own the diner — and he got to make the sausage.

He wrote some of the nation’s toughest drug policies. “You have to understand, I come from a neighborhood where 'The Wire' was filmed,” he said. He also pushed for economic empowerment in underserved communities, declaring: “Baltimore will do extremely well, but that’s not the question. The question is whether all of Baltimore will rise together, or will we leave some behind?"

Rep. Cummings made certain to put first the best interests of both the community he represented and the nation he loved. Today, so many of us stand taller because Elijah Cummings bent down; today we are stronger because Elijah Cummings uplifted a new generation of men and women who have been cut from the hem of his coattail.

ADVERTISEMENT

I am honored to have spent time with him, learned from him, battled with him and to have watched firsthand how he managed the complexities of leadership.

By his example we would come to appreciate the patriot, the fighter, the man who was unafraid to draw us away from the partisan edge. Instead, he would tell us to remember that, one day, an accounting of our leadership would come due: “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, 'In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?' ”  

But now we are left to grieve for a dear friend and, in our grief, we turn for understanding and consolation.

Psalm 30:5 reminds us that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” We are encouraged to embrace Elijah Cummings’s life not with a “vale of tears” but with the joy of having known him. We are richer because he believed in our possibilities, and even more grateful for the man who knew how to make the sausage.

My condolences for the family of Rep. Cummings. Their loss is personal, but it is shared by so many whose lives were touched by him. While we mourn with them, we also celebrate with them the life of a great man — a mentor, a friend, a servant and a leader.

Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He is an MSNBC political analyst.