This is what I smart and empathetic man sounds like. This is how the President of the United States should conduct himself. Former President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy today honoring Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who died last week after a decades-long career in the House of Representatives. Cummings was —the first African American lawmaker to lay in state at the U.S. Capitol.
To the bishop, and the first lady, and the New Psalmist family, to the Cummings family, Maya, Mr. President, Madam Secretary, Madam Speaker, governor, friends, colleagues, staff.
The seed on good soil, the parable of the sower tells us, stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. The seed on good soil.
Elijah Cummings came from good soil. And in this sturdy frame, goodness took root. His parents were sharecroppers from the South. They picked tobacco and strawberries, and then sought something better in this city, South Baltimore. Robert worked shifts at a plant, and Ruth cleaned other people’s homes. They became parents of seven, preachers to a small flock. I remember I had the pleasure of meeting Elijah’s mother, Ruth, and she told me she prayed for me every day, and I knew it was true, and I felt better for it. Sometimes people say they are praying for you, and you don’t know. They might be praying about you, but you don’t know if they are praying for you. But I knew Miss Ruth was telling the truth.
So they were the proverbial salt of the earth, and they passed on that strength and that grit, but also that kindness and that faith to their son. As a boy, Elijah’s dad made him shine his shoes and tie his tie, and they’d go to the airport—not to board the airplanes, but to watch others do it. I remember Elijah telling me this story. Robert would say, “I have not flied. I may not fly, but you will fly one day. We can’t afford it right now, but you will fly.”
His grandmother—as Elijah related—and as grandmothers do, was a little more impatient with her advice. Your daddy, she said, “he’s been waiting and waiting for a better day. Don’t you wait.” And Elijah did not wait. Against all odds, Elijah earned his degrees. He learned about the rights that all people in this country are supposed to possess, with a little help, apparently, from Perry Mason. Elijah became a lawyer to make sure that others had rights, and his people had their God-given rights, and from the statehouse to the House of Representatives, his commitment to justice and the rights of others would never, ever waver.
Elijah’s example: a son of parents who rose from nothing to carve out just a little something, a public servant who toiled to guarantee the least of us have the same opportunities that he had earned. A leader who once said he would die for his people, even as he lived every minute for them—his life validates the things we tell ourselves about what’s possible in this country. Not guaranteed, but possible. The possibility that our destinies are not preordained. But rather, through our works, and our dedication, and our willingness to open our hearts to God’s message of love for all people, we can live a purposeful life. That we can reap a bountiful harvest. That we are neither sentenced to wither among the rocks nor assured a bounty, but we have a capacity, the chance, as individuals and as a nation, to root ourselves in good soil.
Elijah understood that. That’s why he fought for justice. That’s why he embraced his beloved community of Baltimore. That’s why he went on to fight for the rights and opportunities of forgotten people all across America, not just in his district. He was never complacent, for he knew that without clarity of purpose and a steadfast faith, and the dogged determination demanded by our liberty, the promise of this nation can wither. Complacency, he knew, was not only corrosive for our collective lives, but for our individual lives.
It has been remarked that Elijah was a kind man. I tell my daughters—and I have to say, listening to Elijah’s daughters speak, that got me choked up. I am sure those of you who have sons feel the same way, but there is something about daughters and their fathers. And I was thinking, I would want my daughters to know how much I love them, but I would also want them to know that being a strong man includes being kind. That there is nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There is nothing weak about looking out for others. There is nothing weak about being honorable. You are not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect. I was sitting here and I was just noticing The Honorable Elijah E. Cummings and, you know, this is a title that we confer on all kinds of people who get elected to public office. We’re supposed to introduce them as honorable.
But Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office. There’s a difference. There is a difference if you are honorable and treated others honorably outside the limelight. On the side of a road; in a quiet moment, counseling somebody you work with; letting your daughters know you love them. As president, I knew I could always count on Elijah being honorable and doing the right thing. And people have talked about his voice. There is something about his voice. It just made you feel better. There’s some people, they have that deep baritone, a prophetic voice. And when it was good times and we achieved victories together, that voice and that laugh was a gift. But you needed it more during the tough times, when the path ahead looked crooked, when obstacles abounded. When I entertained doubts, or I saw those who were in the fight start to waver, that’s when Elijah’s voice mattered most.
More than once during my presidency, when the economy still looked like it might plunge into depression, when the health-care bill was pronounced dead in Congress, I would watch Elijah rally his colleagues. “The cost of doing nothing isn’t nothing,” he would say, and folks would remember why they entered into public service. “Our children are the living messengers we send to a future we will never see,” he would say, and he would remind all of us that our time is too short not to fight for what’s good and what is true and what is best in America.
Two hundred years to 300 years from now, he would say, people will look back at this moment and they will ask the question “What did you do?” And hearing him, we would be reminded that it falls upon each of us to give voice to the voiceless, and comfort to the sick, and opportunity to those not born to it, and to preserve and nurture our democracy.
Elijah Cummings was a man of noble and good heart. His parents and his faith planted the seeds of hope, and love, and compassion, and righteousness in that good soil of his. He has harvested all the crops that he could, for the Lord has now called Elijah home, to give his humble, faithful servant rest. And it now falls on us to continue his work, so that other young boys and girls from Baltimore, across Maryland, across the United States, and around the world might too have a chance to grow and to flourish. That’s how we will honor him. That’s how we will remember him. That’s what he would hope for. May God bless the memory of the very honorable Elijah Cummings. And may God bless this city, and this state, and this nation that he loved. God bless you.