tv Commencement Speeches Rep. Elijah Cummings Morgan State University CSPAN October 17, 2019 11:47pm-12:21am EDT
that allair asks members please rise for a moment of silence in remembrance of our good friend and colleague, the honorable chairman elijah e. cummings. silence]f announcer: in may, house oversight committee chair elijah cummings delivered the morgan state university commencement address in baltimore. he discussed overcoming adversity, standing up for democracy, and congress' duty to
investigate presidential and executive branch abuses. this is 30 minutes. [applause] rep. cummings: to dr. wilson, i want to thank you for your very kind introduction. good morning to everyone. i'm honored to be with you on the wonderful occasion. as i was sitting there listening to my good friend and mentor and colleague, i could not help but think about the campus as it was maybe 15 or so years ago, and think about how far we have come and i am so proud to be associated with morgan state university. it is one of the proudest things i do sitting on the board. give yourselves a hand. [applause]
rep. cummings: we have been great. to the chairman and my distinguished colleagues, of this great university, i thank you for inviting me here today. my thanks to you as well for joining us here at morgan state university for a brief conversation about the future of our graduates and the future of our country. i am also pleased to be joined ya rocky morer. ma cummings, and many of my family members today. you all agree there is something inspiring and life affirming about standing here among women and men. who have completed one difficult
journey in their lives and are about to embark upon another. ladies and gentlemen, they started something and they finished it. give yourselves a hand. [applause] rep. cummings: we know that life flourishes most at a crossroads diverse ecosystems meet. graduation days are also a crossroads. for those whom we acknowledge and honor are also challenged. both by your recognition and by the life forces. -- choices that they are now called upon to make. i would add that this year
specially, our graduates will be embarking on lives of accomplishment. but at the same time, our nation is also at a crossroads. in the words of former president barack obama, we americans must decide what kind of nation we want to be. and then we must go about the business of shaping our destiny. ladies and i will offer some thoughts this morning about these challenges and about our ability to overcome them. as is appropriate on graduation day, i will speak first to our graduates. about the true value of the obstacles they have overcome and will overcome in their lives.
hopefully, all of you this morning will gain some small benefit from my experience in this regard. having spoken to those who are strong and resilient people, i would expand those thoughts to the challenges we all must overcome as citizens of this great nation. graduates, before i begin, allow me to join you in giving some credit where credit is due. we seldom achieve anything meaningful in life by our own efforts alone. graduates, please join me in first thanking your god, your family, your friends -- [applause]
professors, the cleaning lady and the janitor -- [applause] -- all of them, and all the other people who have stood by you and help to you to reach .his graduation stage and parents another footnote, i , know parents have been tired of lending money to your students. it to come expect too soon. i am still trying to collect. from my 36-year-old. [laughter] you have sacrificed for it, graduates. you prayed for it. you stayed up late for it. some of you have even fallen down while pursuing it. but thank god, graduates, that when you fell down, you dusted yourself off and got back up. [applause]
rep. cummings: so therefore, you are justified in taking pride in all that you have accomplished. i thank you for something else. thank you for allowing your aspirations to inspire all of us. as i promised, i will take a few moments explaining why i believe that the obstacles that you have overcome in life are so important. so often, people curse their lives and curse the difficult things they are going through. but they do not realize that in those difficult moments are often blessings. come on now. that is why said to michael " when bad things happen
to you, don't ask the question, why did it happened to me? asked a question of why did it happen for me." briefly share a childhood experience that helps illustrate what i said to this morning. i spend my earliest years in a small rented roadhouse here in south baltimore. we lived in an area near fort mchenry. you know the place. where the star-spangled banner still waves. like all american children, i recited a pledge to the flag every morning. i must tell you, however, that i had to question whether those inspiring words, liberty and justice for all, included little elijah.
our poorly-equipped 10-room elementary school did not have a lunch room or an auditorium or a gymnasium. it had a little tiny playground. i was trying to learn what was then called the third group. today, we call it special ed. one day in the sixth grade, a school counselor asked me what i wanted to become in life. i had been inspired by a lawyer from the local naacp named one need to jackson mitchell -- juanita jackson mitchell. she had fought for a swimming pool near our local home. i told the counselor i wanted to be a lawyer.
so that i could go out and help people. i must tell you the counselor looked at me and said, you poor kid. he said he will never be a lawyer. i want to make it clear, he was my color. let's be clear on that. he then said something to me that has haunted me all my life. he said, "who do you think you are? how dare you think you can become a lawyer. your mom has a fourth grade education and your dad has a fourth-grade education. former sharecroppers seven , brothers and sisters. how do you think you're going to do that?" young people, i must tell you i almost lost my faith that day, but i went home and told my mother, who did not have a phd in education, but had a phd in faith. [applause]
rep. cummings: and others, teachers who are now dead, that believed in my potential and saw things in me that i did not even see in myself. our recreation leader captain jim smith took me under his arms. our local pharmacist gave me a little job. filling prescriptions without a license, at 14. amen. [laughter] i was good. i didn't know what it did for you, but i know i could fill him. together with my parents, they
lifted me up by the strength of their example. they took my big dream and made it their own. so i kept working hard. the day finally came when they made it out of the third group, went on to get this phi beta kappa. when they told me i made it, i didn't even know what they were talking about. i said i didn't pledge for no fraternity. what are you talking about? turns out one of the highest honors in the world. that is 14 years in the maryland legislature. i was selected by my neighbors to represent them in the congress of the united states of america. following the distinguished service. as a result, i am honored to stand before you on this wonderful occasion.
because of this, i'm privileged to remind you of a very important truth. listen up. you, each and every one of each and everyone of you are better and more valuable precisely because of the obstacles you have faced and overcome. everything that has happened to you up until this moment, good, bad, and ugly, prepared you for this moment. understand what i am saying to you now. i want you to know that back when i first went to congress, they put me in leadership after about a year, and i would sit there and wonder what i had to contribute. i asked the question, what would a little fellow who grew up in south baltimore have to contribute to all these people i have seen on television? what would he have to
contribute, the one who graduated from the hbcu? one day they were talking about special education and her leadership meeting and a little boy came and said, "elijah, it is time for you to say something. "and i said to myself, i don't have anything to contribute." i've had a rough life. they don't want to hear what i have to say. the little boy said, you better get up. you the only expert in here. the only one that had been in special ed. amen. [laughter] so i got up and i began to talk about my experience in special ed. i talked about the pain. i talked about the frustration. i talked about the victories. and on that day, that little committee began to put together some things that gave us more
funding for special ed. i am saying to our graduates never forget the bridge that brought you over. never forget. [applause] so now, graduates, i shared this personal story with you. by the way, let me give you a footnote. my first client, one of my first clients when i became a lawyer, was the counselor who had told me i would never be a lawyer. [applause] that leads me to another point. don't let anybody define you. you must define yourselves! so now, graduates, i shared this personal story and i want you to appreciate your human potential. you are not hearing this from someone who grew up with a
silver spoon. nah. nah. i didn't have no silver spoon. i didn't have a plastic one. [laughter] they do make some nice plastic spoons now, you notice? you hearing this from someone who grew up in adversity. and therein is the potential value that you yourselves have overcome. from my own life and from my service on this distinguished morgan state board of regents, i know that many of you have struggled. i know you have struggled to obtain your education. i know that many of you are the first in your generation to get a college degree. i know that despite our efforts -- and we do work hard -- to make morgan's education affordable as possible, many of
you all have a lot of student loans. amen. i know overcoming all of these challenges has instilled in you a soft heart for others, and a backbone of steel. i can tell you that a steel backbone and a soft heart will beat a silver spoon any day. graduates, these insights about the challenges brings me back to the critical crossroads where we stand today. to that fork in the road for yourselves and your country, your life experiences and your educational achievements are essential elements of our potential to lead our nation during a difficult and challenging time.
the fundamental question for each of us is this. what will you do with this potential? will you draw upon the confidence in your competence that you have gained when you are confronted with future and by future obstacles? have you learned not to mistake a comma in life for periods and carry on? will you recognize the opportunities that are now open to you and fight against anyone who intentionally or otherwise stands in the way of your achieving your destiny? and most important of all, to me and your country, will you utilize the obstacles that you have overcome as passports to
helping others reach their own potential in life? graduates, the answers to these questions, i submit to you, will define your future as citizens of what is still the most significant democracy and democratic republic in the history of the world. this is the challenge to which i will now turn. ladies and gentlemen, a few moments ago i shared with you briefly, as a child, my family lived near fort mchenry, where the star-spangled banner waves. my reciting to the flag and wondering whether it meant anything to me. i also shared with you how i had been inspired by way nita jackson miller, a lawyer. those two taught me two important lessons. it taught me i had rights, that others had to respect, even if
they didn't want to, and it taught me that we sometimes must struggle and even experience pain as we stand up for our constitutional rights. and to all of us who are blessed to be citizens of this united states, i must submit to you that the time to stand up and be counted is right now. don't -- don't -- don't wait. we have to stand up right now. since the 2016 presidential election, the american people have marched, organized, and demanded serious reforms in their government. then, last year in 2018, the people elected a democratic majority in the house of representatives. we have been charged with more seriously and comprehensively
addressing the challenges that are central to our daily lives. americans from every ethnic and religious background have been crying out to congress that will confront the widening disparities in our incomes. we're working to address the serious, unresolved challenges that confront us in public education, health care, law enforcement, and our environment. yet, even as we finance our struggle for greater social justice, the overriding challenge that we must now confront and overcome is far more fundamental. please consider this. at the close of our nation's constitutional convention in 1787, benjamin franklin was
asked whether the framers had proposed a republic or a monarchy. mr. franklin is said to have replied "a republic, if you can keep it." if you can keep it. today in 2019, we still have a republic, if we can keep it. the functioning and the very legitimacy of our very democratic system has been under seizure for some time. there's no room for error. we must confront and overcome this continuing attack on our elections from sources both foreign and domestic. we must address as well the failure of our administration, this administration, and some in congress that inadequately defend us against these attacks,
to fight for the very soul of our democracy. it has been raised inescapably by the actions of the president of the united states of america. both while in office, and it still may be determined by his current conduct. i did not come here to give a political speech. i came here to make it clear that we have got work to do. equally dangerous -- [applause] equally dangerous, if not more so, the threats to our democracy have been allowed to metastasize by the failure of the current republican majority in the senate and the prior republican house majority to fulfill our constitutional duties, to investigate and cure the executive abuse, and hold this
administration accountable. for the unity and the future of our democratic republic, remember, the one we want to keep, congress must reassert our constitutional power and obligation of oversight. for the unity and future of our democratic republic, patriotic citizens of every political persuasion must support us in meeting this challenge. we must demand and obtain answers to serious questions that, until now, have gone unanswered. most important of all, you must perform this constitutional duty so effectively, efficiently, and convincingly that those americans who support the president and those who disagree will reach a shared and united answer as to how our nation must
proceed. i share all this with you, ladies and gentlemen, because our citizenship brings with it duties as well as rights. our nation, like these graduates that stand, are at a crossroads. there are those who by their actions prefer an unchecked executive rather than a president constrained by the constitutional powers of the congress in article 1 of the constitution. there are those who, if allowed to do so, would move us toward a monarchy, rather than the republic that we have been given. the republic checks and balances that our constitution guarantees. this un-democratic tendency cannot, cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.
and all of us as citizens must do our duty. i certainly did not come here to make this political speech. it turned out to be one. [laughter] but what i do ask of each of you is to appreciate the value of our democratic republic in this hour of peril. what i do ask of each of you, and especially our graduates, is to call upon the talents and education that you have received at this great institution, and stand up for our democracy in your own communities. what i do ask of you is president obama's challenge to all of us. i ask you to fight for the america that we want to become. for myself, i can only tell you
-- promise you this. i will continue to do all that i can to live up to the lasting example set for us by former congresswoman barbara jordan when she declared in 1974, my faith in the constitution is whole. it is complete. it is total. and i am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the subversion or destruction of the constitution. ladies and gentlemen, as citizens of a still-great republic, we must be clear, this is our time, and this is our challenge to meet and to overcome. even as americans we're forced to rise up to the bad, the
threat to our democracy once again demands that we respond. please consider what as a nation we have been experiences. once again, as in our past, our nation is struggling to overcome forces of societal conflict, official inhumanity, calculated distrust that far surpassed anything that we have been forced to endure in the last five decades. once again, there are those in national power who seek to dominate our nation by dividing us from our countrymen and women. i remind you that our diversity is not our problem. our diversity is our promise. once again, the american people must respond to false leaders whose governing strategy is grounded in the war of all against all. once again, hundreds of millions
of americans are going to sleep at night haunted by what are appalling developments the morning may bring. i frankly invite these dangers to our democratic republic. those of us who were raised up to adulthood and citizenship during the dr. king era, we are not afraid, am i right, class of 1969? we are not afraid. and above all, we are not defeated. nor, graduates, should you be. i want you to understand that i have -- that you have something i do not have. if i could buy it for you, i would. i would give up my wife and kids. at 68, i have lived longer than i will live. your lives are in front of you.
i beg you to go out and stand up for this democracy that allows us to have this great university , that allows us to be able to do the things that we are doing, that allowed generation after generation of our people to rise up. as dr. king often reminded us in my youth, our nation's darkest hours often been just before the dawn. so it can be again as we stand together, march together, vote together, and demand the light of democracy be restored. as we have done so often in our past, we who are americans of color must once again lead this march to defend our constitution and the democratic republic it sustains. we, who once were slaves, we who
once were called 3/5 of a man, who, who once were barred from citizenship, must now march in the forefront of a movement of democratic restoration for all americans. we are at a crossroads, and we must once again assert the full measure of our citizenship. throughout our history, justice has prevailed when there were those who had the courage to chart a better course. and as i close, a year ago, my mother passed away after preaching a sermon. she then had a stroke. and chairman mfume, she called all her children around, and she had a message for all of us. and she sat there and she laid there and half of her weight had
gone. a woman who created her own church and had been a wonderful wife and had been a wonderful mother for seven children, but she laid there and she wanted to give me a last message. i knew she was going to say "i love you, elijah." i waited for it. i knew she was going to say "i'm proud of you elijah." i was waiting for it. that she didn't. she said neither. she kept pointing at a piece of paper by her bed, and i could not understand what she was saying, because she had suffered a stroke. and i finally figured it out, mr. president. she pointed out a ballot, the type that you take into voting booths, and she kept pointing. and i gave it to her, and what
she was saying is do not let them take away our right to vote. don't let them take away our right to vote! [applause] and so it is. i thank you as the graduates. i congratulate you. and god bless. [applause] in august, congressman elijah cummings spoke at the national press club. he talked about his upbringing in baltimore, eight full incendiary comments in political discourse, and gun violence.