Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) gave students at his alma mater a call to action on Thursday night encouraging them to take charge of their communities in order to blaze a trail for those in need.
“Make sure you go out there and prepare yourself to be excellent. We don’t have time for you to be followers, I’m sorry. I want you to be leaders. I want you to go out there and help to set policy as opposed to try and follow policy.”
Rep. Cummings was the keynote speaker for “The Civil Rights Movement: Then and Now,” an event organized by a coalition of organizations targeted towards African-American students in commemoration of Black History Month.
The speech is part of a series of functions being held throughout the month of February under the theme, “Reclaim Your Glory.”
The Democrat, who holds a ledership position in the House, began by telling a story of how his parents moved from South Carolina to Baltimore in order to grant their children with better education opportunities, higher paying jobs, healthcare, a better criminal justice system and voting rights during an era when racial discrimination still plagued the United States. He reiterated his belief that these issues are still being fought for by minorities today.
“I’ve come here to beg you not just to concentrate on history. Learn from the history but be inspired by the aspirations of those who came before you,” Rep. Cummings said.
Cummings, 65, also recounted a moment in his life which inspired him to attain the position he is in today. As a 10-year-old growing up in Baltimore, Cummings said he was beaten, stomped and kicked after trying to integrate an Olympic-sized pool in what was known at the time as a white neighborhood alongside 300-400 kids who mobilized under the guidance of his role model, lawyer Juanita Mitchell.
“The first thing it taught me was that I had rights. I had rights I didn’t even know I had. It taught me that if I stood up instead of standing on the sidelines of life (and) if I stood up and said that I want to assert my rights, it might take a while and it may not be easy but I could get those rights.”
After this experience, Cummings said he wanted to be just like the lawyer whom he referred to as Ms. Mitchell because “if she could come down and be that bold…..and she had a law degree and could pull all that off then I wanted to be what Ms. Mitchell was.”
Cummings also urged students to make sure they vote because he believes there is a systematic “deliberate effort” stopping young people from becoming politically active. He says that 22 states have now created laws to “make sure that it is more difficult to vote in a democracy.” He called for more minorities to attend law school so that the discriminatory laws regarding voting don’t succeed or come into fruition.
“This is bigger than you, in fact this is not even about you, it is so much bigger. What you do today will affect generations unborn. You are the leaders. People are hungry for leadership and you’ve gotta do it.”