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University News

Cummings calls for compassion

Congressman speaks about integrity, respect as core values of representative society

Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2016

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, passionately voiced the sentiments of disenfranchised Americans and advocated for respect and integrity as the means by which to improve society in his speech “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, delivered the Noah Krieger ’93 Memorial Lecture with a mixture of passion, anger and humor Tuesday night. The speech moved students and community members alike, and as Cummings left the stage, the audience broke into the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine,” inspired by an anecdote Cummings told about the power of compassion.

The speech, titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” centered around a set of questions that Cummings repeated frequently from the perspective of disenfranchised people across the country to those in power: “Do you hear me? Do you see me? Do you care about me?” He proposed compassion, integrity and respect as the values needed to create a society in which everyone is represented. He concluded his speech by saying, “when we see and respect each other, there will be a greater nation. There will be a greater world.”

Cummings wove together anecdotes from his life, especially his childhood, and his thoughts on contemporary politics. He was born in Baltimore in 1951, and his parents were former sharecroppers without education past third grade. He said that he was placed in a “special ed” program in a segregated Baltimore school, where his school counselor told him that he would never be able to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer.

But Cummings persevered, becoming a lawyer and then a congressman. He framed his success against all odds as an argument for the importance of helping those who are disenfranchised and having empathy in designing policy.

In an emotional and powerful moment, he spoke about Freddie Gray — a black man killed in police custody in Baltimore ­— and last year’s protests in Cummings’ district. “I am Freddie Gray,” Cummings declared, highlighting the numerous similarities between himself and Gray to illustrate the potential that was destroyed by a corrupt system and the need for compassion in public discourse.

He repeated the question he asked the media when he spoke at Gray’s funeral: “You see him today. But did you see him when he lived?” Cummings repeatedly identified the lack of empathy between groups as a critical problem. “There are many in our society today who don’t see each other, and we live right next door to each other,” he said.

Cummings spoke about a wide variety of contemporary issues, intertwining grave political and social issues with an off-the-cuff humor that caused the audience to erupt into laughter at times. He urged students to speak out against proposed laws that weaken voting rights and called economic inequality the issue that “underpins everything else.” He said that he felt passionate about reforming the criminal justice system because without his education or good upbringing, he would probably “be sitting in some jail cell.”

Cummings also denounced Donald Trump, describing his brand of blaming others as divisive and dangerous. Political polarization is one of the biggest problems facing American society, Cummings said. He told The Herald that he believes it can only be fought by acting with integrity. In his speech, he said that integrity means that politicians need to be held accountable to their constituents, not their parties.

The 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision that prohibited the government from limiting independent political expenditures from nonprofits is “probably one of the most damaging things to our democracy that we can imagine,” Cummings told The Herald, and he urged students to fight against the decision. “I think that student activism is very important, but it has got to go beyond just showing up at a rally. It has got to go to voting,” he added.

Cummings told The Herald that he finds it “very hard to be optimistic” about the state of the government, in large part due to the way campaigns are financed. He said he often wonders “whether people truly come to Washington to represent the interests of the average person on Main Street.”

“Our society will only take but so much. In some kind of way, it will be shifted back to where it is supposed to be,” Cummings said. “I believe that. But it is going to take us making that happen.”

Cummings said that he had two lessons for students in the audience. The first was about following their passions, as he implored students to “do whatever it is that feeds your soul.” The second was that students should remember that there are always going to be difficulties in life.

Audience member Praveen Srinivasan ’18 appreciated that Cummings provided a message that was against hate. Cummings knows “that ultimately right now the entire electoral system is very much rigged to disenfranchise the very people who need the most help from the government,” Srinivasan added.

Marian Styles-McClintock, a Providence community activist, was excited to see Cummings after following him in the news for a long time. She said that the most memorable part of the speech for her was Cummings’ life story of overcoming so much adversity. “He is an example of what can happen” when children who are not expected to succeed persevere.

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  1. “The speech moved students and community members alike, and as Cummings left the stage, the audience broke into the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine,” inspired by an anecdote Cummings told about the power of compassion.”
    This is a micro-aggression against people who aren’t Christians. People can be compassionate without ascribing to the belief of Jesus Christ as our savior. I thought Brown was supposed to be a more progressive and inclusive place now than when I graduated.

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