Reps. Elijah Cummings and John Conyers, Jr. got us this far. Now it’s on us to advance the fight.
By Judith Browne Dianis
In the span of 10 days, we lost Congressman Elijah Cummings and retired Congressman John Conyers Jr. Both men dedicated their lives to fighting to make our union a little more perfect than it was when they found it. Losing our elders is never easy. Each passing prompts reflections on the good fights they fought and the lives they led.
There’s a comfort in standing on the shoulders of living giants that get ripped away when those giants make their transition from the earth. If we take nothing else from the lives of Reps. Cummings and Conyers, let it be that we all have an obligation to act. Social justice is not a spectator sport.
As the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, Conyers fought for what he believed was right – even when what was right wasn’t politically palatable in the moment or seemed like a moonshot to the masses. He pushed for the boundaries of possibility, introducing HR 40, a bill to establish a committee to study the impacts of slavery and remedies for African Americans, in each House session since 1989. Forty years after Conyers first introduced HR 40, two years after his resignation, and 400 years since the beginning of African enslavement on this land, the House held a hearing to discuss the possibility of reparations and Democratic presidential candidates are talking about reparations in debates.
In addition to leading the fight for reparations, Conyers was a fierce advocate of expanding voting rights in the 1960s as a sponsor of the Voting Rights Act. He also called for the impeachment of Richard Nixon over the war in Vietnam.
Like Conyers, Congressman Cummings was a faithful servant in the fight for civil rights. In the hours before his death, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was signing subpoenas for ICE officials to testify to continue the fight for justice for immigrants across the country. In addition to holding the current administration accountable, Cummings held us to account, too. In a now-famous February exchange during attorney Michael Cohen’s testimony before his committee, Cummings asked, “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?”
Like so many of our civil rights titans, Cummings and Conyers had a way with words. It can be tempting, intoxicating even, to just cheer on the fights for equity and equality from the stands. But the fight for our freedom is a long relay and as our elders transition, we must pick up the baton and keep on moving.
As Executive Director of Advancement Project National Office, I have the privilege of working with grassroots organizations full of amazing people across the country in the fight for voting rights, quality education, immigrant rights, and the transformation of our criminal legal system. For communities of color, these fights aren’t optional. But to echo the words of Rep. Cummings, he asked “what did we do,” not “what did communities of color do?”
Dismantling systems of oppression has never been a fight solely for communities of color. It takes all of us. From the beginning, we’ve had entrepreneurs who have devoted social and economic capital to fighting alongside us. They too, have been given a baton. During our 20-year history, Advancement Project National Office has been an outspoken ally and advocate for equality. We not only show up when it counts, we stay for the long haul in cities like Miami, working with Power U Center for Social Change calling on the Miami-Dade County School Board to prioritize funding for mental health and counselors instead of more school police officers. We are actively and regularly on the ground in St. Louis working on the #CloseTheWorkhouse campaign with Action St. Louis and Arch City Defenders in an effort
shut down an inhumane jail and advocate against wealth-based pre-trial detention. Our litigators are visiting migrants imprisoned by ICE in private-run prisons, and we continue to advocate to get the voices of people of color heard at the polls. We heard you Reps. Cummings and Conyers. We will continue to agitate.
One day, we’ll all have our opportunity to dance with the angels. But while we’re here, it is our responsibility to do what we can to advance the fight for racial justice. That’s how we honor the memories of those who came before us as we prepare to pass the baton to those coming after.