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Sherrilyn Ifill On The Legacy Of Elijah Cummings


Congressman Elijah Cummings has died. The Maryland Democrat represented his Baltimore district in the House of Representatives for more than 20 years. He was a very important voice for civil rights, and in recent months he rose to prominence as one of the leaders of Democratic efforts to investigate the Trump administration.

Here he is talking to Steve Inskeep about an emoluments probe in 2017.


ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Let me tell you something. I'm going to press on with everything I've got because literally I lose sleep over this.

KING: I'm on the line now with Sherrilyn Ifill. She's president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Good morning, Ms. Ifill.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Good morning.

KING: You knew Congressman Cummings, so I imagine this is a hard day for you. What's on your mind?

IFILL: I'm thinking a lot about what he represented - a very particular kind of leadership. First and foremost, what it means to Baltimore. You know, Elijah Cummings was really a son of Baltimore, and he loved this town. And people in Baltimore could relate to him, could relate to his life story.

And he really was a moral force in the community. People trusted him. In the unrest after Freddie Gray was killed, it was Elijah Cummings who could walk into the crowd and be recognized and have people respond to him. And so I think what the country has seen of him over the last year is a reflection of what many of us here in Baltimore have known for the 20 years of his leadership. A man of tremendous, tremendous integrity.

He managed - I was saying earlier today, on social media - humility was an important part of his presentation of himself, always talked about his humble beginnings. It was impossible to hear a speech from Elijah Cummings, whether at a commencement or any occasion, without hearing him talk about his mother. That was important to him to continue to present in that way and to be an example of what your life can become.

But he also had a very fierce commitment to justice and the truth. And I think that's what many Americans have seen as he - in his oversight committee leadership over the past two years - his dogged commitment to the truth but also, his ability to marry that with a kind of humanity. You never lost sight of that when you engaged with Elijah Cummings - that he was a human being, that he responded to you as a human being, even if he viscerally opposed your politics. He was still able to respond and to receive someone as a human being.

He was just an extraordinary, extraordinary person who really put his all into public service.

KING: A few months ago, as you know, President Trump called the congressman's Baltimore district a, quote, "a rodent-infested mess." And Congressman Cummings was really, really passionate when he came out and he defended that city and its citizens. Let me play you a clip of that.


CUMMINGS: As a country, we finally must say that enough is enough - that we are done with the hateful rhetoric, that we are done with the mass shootings, that we are done with the white supremacist domestic terrorists who are terrorizing our country and fighting against everything America stands for.

KING: Really strong words there. How important was it that he spoke up for Baltimore? And by extension, he really spoke up for black urban neighborhoods around the country that have been targeted by this kind of rhetoric, didn't he?

IFILL: Yeah, it was very important. You know, I talk about Elijah Cummings being a son of Baltimore. He was very proud of Baltimore, proud of his leadership and his representation - honest about the challenges that we face in our city, but always there for the real substantive solutions that would make a difference.

We had an opportunity to work with him a number of times in the legal defense fund - challenging housing discrimination, co-hosting a town hall on policing reform, working on the effort to try to bring rapid transit to black communities in Baltimore, the red line.

That was all Elijah Cummings being willing to be front and center with pushing for transformation of the city. So he was - he had a clear eye about what the problems were, but he was in the fixing business. He was not in the rhetoric business. And so, it was really important to him to not back down from any challenge to the integrity of Baltimore city.

KING: In the fixing business, I like that. You'll miss him, I imagine.

IFILL: We all will.

KING: Yeah. Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Thank you so much for taking the time this morning.

IFILL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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