Elijah Cummings: the ‘Greatest of us all’

“I have only just a minute. Only 60 seconds in it. Forced upon me, can’t refuse it. Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it. But it’s up to me to use it. I must suffer if I lose it. Give account if I abuse it. Just a tiny minute, but eternity is in it.”

This poem, “Just a Minute,” was written by Benjamin E. Mays, a former Baptist Minister, civil rights leader, sixth president of Morehouse College, a mentor of the late great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, and an advocate of nonviolence and civil resistance — as taught and practiced by Mahatma Gandhi. Above all, Mays was a major influence in the life of the Honorable Representative of Maryland’s 7thDistrict, Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, who died this month at 68.

Congressman Cummings outlined this poem during his very first speech on the U.S. House of Representatives floor on April 25, 1996, noting that he recites that poem up to 20 times a day.

I was fortunate enough to be in the unalloyed presence of Congressman Cummings, with most of our interactions being extraordinarily motivating and transformative. I can recall one specific conversation that I will never forget. On Jan. 12, 2017, members from the Baltimore City Fire Department responded to a home in northeast Baltimore that claimed the lives of six children. Those children belonged to one of his staff members. This heartbreaking news deeply saddened Congressman Cummings and left him at a loss for words. At that moment, he said to me, “Chief, you need to understand, all of my staff have been with me for years and they are like my family.” He went on to say, “those children are children and grandchildren of mine.” He sighed and continued, “please keep me informed.”

Congressman Cummings was someone who remained true to his word and loved people — his staff and, more importantly, his community. I spoke with the congressman numerous times throughout that day and many times thereafter. When Congressman Cummings recited “Just a Minute,” this was his personal call to action. The congressman I remember was always on the move, always working for his community and always taking strides to help others. Throughout the years, he remained proactive with helping the youth find resources for college and helping them find employment. He was passionate about affordable health care and helping mitigate ways to reduce opioid abuse in our community. In April 2015, during the Baltimore unrest, Congressman Cummings spent several nights walking the streets of North Avenue to encourage young people to head home — telling them that he understood their frustration. Congressman Cummings was conscious about being effective with every minute he was given.

To the members of Baltimore City Fire Department, I often speak about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the “Drum-Major Instinct.” It was a homily that tells the biblical story of how James and John wanted to be great and wanted the most prominent seats in heaven. Dr. King continued his sermon with a statement that should be heard in today’s time. During Dr. King’s sermon, he said, “Jesus stated that he could not make anyone great, and that the only way to be great is to serve and help others. Jesus said that the one of you who helps and serves others in the most profound way would be the greatest of all.”

My personal goal in life is to help others. I admire the people who view helping others as a necessity. In the same vein outlined in the “Drum-Major Instinct,” I can say without hesitation that Congressman Elijah E. Cummings is the “greatest of us all,” and he will be greatly missed.

Niles R. Ford (Twitter: @ChiefNilesRFord) is fire chief of the Baltimore City Fire Department.