Remembering Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings died Thursday at 68. NPR's Audie Cornish speaks to longtime friend and mentor Larry Gibson about Cummings' rise the national political stage.
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Remembering Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings

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Remembering Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings

Remembering Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Representative Elijah Cummings died early this morning at the age of 68. The congressman had multiple health challenges in recent years. Cummings was sworn into Congress more than 20 years ago, representing Baltimore, the city where he was born and raised. He was a fierce champion for civil rights even from a young age. At 11, he desegregated a Baltimore city pool with a group of friends. An angry mob threw bottles and stones at them, and that mob's violence scarred Cummings' face. But it didn't stop him.

Larry Gibson met Cummings when he was just 17. The Baltimore attorney says the two men were friends for the rest of Cummings' life.

LARRY GIBSON: I was looking at our last communication. The last email exchange was September the 29. And it's sort of funny, this email. It says, Elijah, there are either multiple Elijah Cummings or you have one fantastic staff. I have never seen someone who is supposedly under the weather kick so much butt. I hope you are following your doctor's orders. I will be in Alabama for a week beginning Tuesday. Don't impeach Trump before I get back. Your brother, Larry.

CORNISH: Gibson remembers their first meeting about 50 years ago.

GIBSON: I was a young lawyer. He was in high school. And this high school has a hall of fame, but there'd never been an African American, and he said it was time to do so. Well, they - normally, the people admitted into the hall of fame are people in their 50s and their 60s. Elijah says, we can't wait till then - 'cause the school had only been desegregated since Brown vs. Board of Education. He pressed, and I was, in 1969, the first black admitted to the Baltimore City College - this thing with a high school hall of fame. And that's when I met Elijah at the school on the day of the ceremony.

CORNISH: So at 17, he was already politically active.

GIBSON: He was already politically active. He was the class president. And this was not - you know, blacks were still a minority in that school. I had attended Howard University. He graduated, and then he went to Howard University. And then he was elected to precisely the same position which I'd held, which is the student council president.

CORNISH: Now, why do you think that is? What is it about his personality that struck you as a young man?

GIBSON: I...

CORNISH: Is it funny? Is it charm? What do you think it was?

GIBSON: I had been trying - thinking all morning, trying to put my finger on that. He had a kind of charisma that gave people confidence that this man was for real, that he was a leader. And it was not about him.

CORNISH: Having met him as such a young man, can you talk a little bit about his background? - 'cause I'm reading here that he's one of seven children of sharecroppers who came, essentially, up from South Carolina during the Great Migration.

GIBSON: Right. His parents had been sharecroppers that come to Baltimore. They were both Pentecostal ministers, and so Elijah's mother and my mother were friends. They were church buddies - so completely independent of any contact between us.

CORNISH: This explains the oratory, I think - his background (laughter).

GIBSON: Yes, it does. Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely. And he told me that as a child, his father would take he and his brother out to the airport. It was called Friendship Airport then. And they weren't going anywhere - but to sit up in the observation area and watch the planes take off and land. That was an experience - his father wanted him to sense that there are other parts of the world. I don't know when you're going to get there, but it's not all here in Baltimore.

And he then came and testified as a congressman. He comes that - he came down to the Maryland Legislature and testified for renaming the airport for Thurgood Marshall. I remember his testimony. He says, I'm asking you. He says, no, I am begging you to rename this airport for Thurgood Marshall.

CORNISH: Can you give us, also, a sense of his connection to Baltimore, to the city? Obviously, he represented the community, but he seemed to really relish his roots there.

GIBSON: He relished his roots that - he was very much a part of the community. And his Baltimoreans loved him as a friend and as a neighbor, and there was simply no sense of any distance. I mean, he was Elijah. We all called him Congressman Cummings. But to everybody in Baltimore, he's Elijah.

CORNISH: What was it like to see him sworn in as the congressman from Baltimore, especially having met him as a kid?

GIBSON: (Laughter) He was so proud of that for his parents. It was like he was doing something for them - that they could see that. That was the big - as I remember that, that was the big deal to him.

CORNISH: Well, Larry Gibson, thank you so much for speaking about your friend with such joy and energy. And...

GIBSON: OK.

CORNISH: ...Our condolences.

GIBSON: All right. OK. Thank you.

CORNISH: Larry Gibson is an attorney in Baltimore and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. We'll have more on Elijah Cummings' career in the U.S. House of Representatives. But for now, we'll end on this, from his first speech on the House floor in 1996.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: And there's a poem that Parren Mitchell said many, many years ago that I say sometimes 20 times a day. And it's a very simple poem, but it's one that I live by. It says, I only have a minute, 60 seconds in it, forced upon me. I did not choose it, but I know that I must use it, give account if I abuse it, suffer if I lose it. Only a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.

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