Rep. Elijah E. Cummings has spent more than two decades on Capitol Hill, representing Maryland’s 7th District. Now the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Cummings talked to Roll Call about what former President Barack Obama meant to the country, why Black History Month continues to matter and why he values having a diverse staff.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Roll Call: [Last month,] Barack Obama lifted off from the East Front of the Capitol after eight years as president. What was going through your mind, as a member of Congress, when that moment happened?
Elijah Cummings: I felt so sad, and I think I wouldn’t have felt so sad if Trump wasn’t replacing him. I thought about all that he had done. I thought about all the fights that he had fought. I thought about how the Republicans resisted him at every turn and that he was still able to achieve a lot. And I thought about how he had been a shining example to show not only African-American children, but all children, that you can become anything you want to become if you work hard and give it your best. And so I felt kind of sad, in a way, that we were losing these folks that woke up every morning in the White House.
I felt kind of sad about the fact that we had a first lady that looked like my wife, and who young girls could say: “This is beauty; this is an example of beauty, of intellect and brilliance.” And I know that they haven’t gone far, but the idea that they aren’t there now. And then when I see a President Trump come in, whose major goal was to overturn everything that President Obama had worked for for eight years. I felt sad.
I never thought, in my lifetime, that I would see a man of color rise to the presidency of the United States. I don’t think you can put a price tag on role models. You can’t. As I go throughout my life, I am reminded that, particularly for African-American kids, a lot of them — it’s like they are on a highway and they’re going in a circle, and some of them don’t even see enough to even be able to dream. Others are able to dream. But then they have to find a ramp to get to the dream. And a lot of them are never able to find a ramp to get to their dream. In other words, they have to come to a point where they believe that they can do this and know that they can do it and know that if they do X, Y and Z, it will be done. And what President Obama and Michelle Obama did was show them that there is a ramp.
[Obama] asked me one time, “You know, Elijah, what do you think people will say my major contribution was?” I said it won’t be the Affordable Care Act, as much, as important as that is. I said your major contribution would be you showed people what they could be and inspired them to be that. And there will be little boys and little girls, who will go out there and because they saw you do what you did — the community organizer become president of the United States, and did a damn good job — you know it’s inspired them to be all that God meant for them to be.
Black History Month: Rep. Elijah Cummings on Barack Obama’s Legacy
RC: What would you tell someone, either in your district or otherwise, who would say something like, “Why do we have a Black History Month?”
EC: First of all, I would say, we shouldn’t have a Black History Month. I think black history should be incorporated into everything that we do. I was so impressed when the [former] first lady said in one of her speeches, I think it was at the convention, that she wakes up in the house that was built by slaves. See, I think a lot of people don’t even know the history of African-Americans and they try to set it aside, as if African-Americans contributed here, contributed there. We are a part of the fabric of this society. When I think about — about every time that I travel to the South in particular, particularly when I am in South Carolina — and I see all the fields of corn and soybeans and whatever, I am reminded that slaves cleared all that land. That used to be just trees. When I look at the railroad, I think about all the slaves that built the railroads. When I look at all these old brick structures, slaves did that and people who were paid pennies a day, after slavery.
And I think about people like the lady displayed in [the movie] “Hidden Figures,” and where she was able to help NASA calculate all kinds of numbers so that people like John Glenn could do what he did. I didn’t even know about her, and I’m 66 years old. So what I am saying is that our history has often been pushed aside. The man who created the stoplights that we go through every day, that we stop for every day. And I can go on and on and on. Blood plasma. [Editor’s note: An African-American medical researcher pioneered its use in transfusions.]
And so a lot of people, because our history has been buried, they look at African-Americans quite often, and say, “Oh, they aren’t bright” or “They haven’t contributed anything.” So I would rather see that history truly intertwined with all other history. But I think it is important to highlight it, because I think what it does is it shows something that I often say, [which] is that our diversity is not our problem. Our diversity is our promise.
And, you know, when I hire staff, I try to have a very diverse staff. Why? Because I believe that the blend of the different cultures and people from different backgrounds, and bringing all of that together, I get the best product. And you know why that is so important? Because if I am going to govern, if I am going to be a part in the process of governing for a diverse population, I think you need a diverse workforce, so that they will be sensitive to that entire population. It just makes sense to me. And by the way, it’s priceless.