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Opinion Elijah Cummings was the keeper of the nation’s conscience

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) in Washington on Aug. 7. (Mary Calvert/Reuters)

It’s hard to measure the enormity of the loss of Elijah Cummings to the nation, to his beloved Baltimore and to African Americans all across the country. His passing just breaks my heart.

The plaudits pouring in are correct. Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland’s 7th Congressional District was indeed, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said , “a leader of towering character and integrity.”

Touchstone phrases being tossed around about him — “a common touch,” “a calm but firm hand,” “a sense of duty and steady strength,” “commanding presence in a man with such a gentle spirit,” “principled leader,” “man of conviction,” “enormous political gravity and moral dignity” — are accurate.

But the Elijah Cummings I got to know was more than a dedicated and skilled public servant. He was, for me, the keeper of the nation’s conscience.

Cummings spoke what was on the minds of many: things on our minds that we either didn’t quite know how — or lacked the courage — to express.

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He didn’t hesitate, not for a nanosecond, to call out injustices, to point out unfairness, to demand equality for his district, his state and his people. He stood up to a disgusting Trump administration as it strived to put down immigrants and denigrate people who don’t resemble President Trump’s overwhelmingly white White House staff.

My wife, Gwen, and I had the chance to observe Cummings in the act of empowering people, through his two years of service as holder of a chair in public policy that we are privileged to endow at Howard University, our alma mater and his.

To watch Cummings was to gain insight into how an exemplar of justice and protector of democracy went about his daily business when the cameras and microphones were busy elsewhere.

His passion for preparing future generations to carry the torch was on display from 2014 to 2016, during months of presentations, lectures and panels that he organized for the benefit of Howard students.

In an opening event aired by Howard’s television station, WHUT, he told students that “you don’t have a right not to be the best that you can be, because so many people have paid the price.” And he encouraged the audience to “go out there and get blessed, so that you can be a blessing.”

What a blessing he was.

In April 2015, Cummings assembled at Howard some key advocates of criminal-justice reform legislation that no one thought would see the light of day on Capitol Hill.

On the dais sat an unlikely alliance — liberal Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), sharing a panel with now-former congressman and Freedom Caucus member Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), in addition to a Koch Foundation representative — promoting an unprecedented progressive change in an unjust and corrosive justice system. Cummings, by all measures, helped steer that bill out of darkness into law.

Which galled some of us to see Trump shamelessly take credit for an initiative that was underway and advanced months before he took office.

Some of us gagged.

But not Cummings.

When I cited Trump’s behavior to the congressman before his appearance at an April 2019 lecture sponsored by current chair holder Donna Brazile — exactly four years after his criminal-justice reform initiative at Howard — he just shook his head and smiled wistfully.

The day stays with me.

A noticeably ailing Cummings, using a walker and aided by his daughter, took the stage with staff help. Asked by Brazile about the just-released Mueller report, Cummings warned students about the constitutionally dangerous behavior of the Trump administration, and the urgent need to prepare themselves academically and intellectually for what was to come.

Cummings, in hindsight, may have known the battle down the road would be fought without him.

Trump, an attack dog from Day One, wouldn’t leave Cummings alone.

Enraged at the way Cummings, as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, had questioned an administration witness who deserved criticism, Trump tweeted that Cummings’ congressional district was “a rat and rodent infested mess.”

The president sneeringly asked: “Why is so much money sent to the Elijah Cummings district when it is considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States. No human being would want to live there. Where is all this money going? How much is stolen? Investigate this corrupt mess immediately!”

Cummings wisely let Trump’s racism speak for itself, as hosts of people across the spectrum rose to the defense of Cummings and Baltimore.

But, Cummings, even with a declining body, took not one step back from his constitutional duty to conduct executive branch oversight or to fight for his constituents.

And it was a good fight.

His course is finished. Every step along the way, he kept the faith.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

Read more:

Joe Scarborough: Elijah Cummings did more than serve Baltimore. He gave hope to the hopeless.

Donna F. Edwards: Elijah Cummings was a giant among legislators

The Post’s View: As long as he had breath, Elijah Cummings spoke out

Karen Tumulty: The fleeting moment of decency in Washington over Elijah Cummings