Elijah Cummings was born to sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South. He spent his life fighting for civil rights and against segregation and went on to become one of the most influential members of Congress, chairing the House Committee on Oversight and Reform where he was a key figure in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.
His story, much like the history of the United States, is long and complicated, full of dark spots but ultimately bending toward justice. Cummings served for 23 years as a Democrat in Congress, representing his home state of Maryland and home city of Baltimore. He was known as a hard worker, willing to reach across the aisle when necessary and to bridge gaps between politics to create friendships. “Those who knew him understood that it was values and patriotism that mattered to him, not party or politics,” writes Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the introduction to his new book, We’re Better Than This, written in the final year of his life.
The book delves into his story and personal history, but it largely serves as a warning.
“This is a fight for the soul of our democracy,” he wrote of President Donald Trump and the current political situation. He used his last days to write a call to action, which he believed was vital to the future of the United States. His widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, finished the book for the congressman, writing in its final chapter that “with every transgression, every disregard for the Constitution, every attempt to act above the law, every denial of truth, our democracy is endangered. That’s why in the months and years ahead we must continue to hear Elijah’s voice, ‘We’re better than this.’ We’re better than this.”
Rockeymoore Cummings ran as a candidate in the special election to fill her late husband’s seat, coming in second to Kweisi Mfume. She also served as chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.
Fortune spoke with Rockeymoore Cummings about her late husband, his legacy, and his final call to action.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
What are your thoughts on the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the new fight in the Senate to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat with Amy Coney Barrett?
We’re headed towards something big and scary, and it’s because this President and his attorney general have indicated that they will be able to fight the results of any election as much as they possibly can. That means that Justice Ginsburg’s death is especially significant; they want to stack the court before the election. Because of that, our democracy is in peril, just like Elijah always predicted, and it’s in peril before the election even happens. We’re at a very serious inflection point in the history of this country. People need to open their eyes and their ears to see and hear clearly what’s going on. Our democracy is in danger, and it’s being put in danger by the very man sitting in the Oval Office.
Let’s talk about this election and the role Congress and the oversight committee in particular may end up playing over these next few weeks.
The Republican Party has been unwilling to hold President Trump accountable. We saw that during the impeachment process, and we’ve seen it in many respects during investigations by both the Senate and the House. It’s important that they continue to investigate and sound the alarm to the American people about what’s happening to counter Donald Trump’s efforts to thwart their investigations. The Trump administration has failed to comply with democratic norms. They won’t respond to subpoenas. Some of their administration officials have refused to testify.
There does seem to be this growing distrust of both the government and our electoral system in general. How does Congress change that going into this presidential election?
Our institutions are only as good as the people who run them. And we have a country being run by a man who is intent on fostering and disseminating disinformation, who operates through chaos and confusion so that he can control the levers of power for his own benefit and for that of his party. He already acknowledged privately to Bob Woodward back in January that he knew that COVID-19 was airborne and that it was dangerous, and yet we’ve seen him and his administration actually rescind that knowledge. We see him trying to confuse people about how it’s transmitted, and we see him directly putting people in danger by holding rallies where they could possibly get COVID-19 and die. People are rightly confused because they’re used to trusting the message of the person sitting in the Oval Office.
Elijah’s message to the American people was that this man, Donald J. Trump, can never be trusted. He’s shown on a daily basis that he is willing to tell hundreds of lies. And the person sitting in the Oval Office today cannot be trusted with our children’s future, with our country’s future, or with our own future.
Chairman Cummings wrote about the importance of finding the humanity in voters and connecting with them—even if they weren’t going to vote for him. What do you think he would have said about this growing partisan divide in the country? How can we bridge these gaps?
What’s so sad about this current moment is that we also have stealth political actors, whether they be foreign governments or our own disinformation specialists from inside the country, who are trafficking conspiracy theories like QAnon. They are intent on capturing the minds of the American public who are vulnerable to conspiracy theories in a way that makes them resistant to facts.
But what’s challenged their ability to continue that effort is the coronavirus, which is resistant to human spin. So in spite of what they say about not wearing masks or whether it’s airborne or forcing kids to go to school or people to open their businesses, the coronavirus is going to do what it does. We’re going to see more unnecessary deaths, and the economy is going to continue to suffer because we have people and institutions that are intent on keeping the American people misinformed.
The President said things about your late husband that were cruel. Your husband was vocal about how much they hurt him. There’s some power in letting the President’s words have power instead of brushing them off…
Words make the world go round. What we say is the currency of what happens in life. With regards to Elijah, I think the hurt and the pain that came from President Trump’s attacks were rooted in being the child of the Jim Crow South. Places where African-Americans live, like Baltimore, have been continually defined as being less than and outside of the body politic. That hurts people because it results in people in power making decisions that intentionally deprive American citizens of the resources they need to thrive. Through his childhood, those kinds of attitudes and that kind of language resulted in separate and unequal schools. It resulted in segregated neighborhoods. It resulted in children like Elijah having rocks thrown at them when they tried to integrate.
It still results in tangible harm and is a real threat to people who are persecuted. And the President is engaged in persecution. He’s been persecuting the city of Baltimore. He’s been persecuting immigrants. He’s been persecuting people of color, and those words aren’t just harmless. They result in actions by people who follow what the President says and act accordingly.
This book came out weeks before the election. What lessons do you want people to take away from it?
I want this book to change the course of history. I want this book to deny President Trump the ability to game and to cheat the system and the electoral college in order to get reelected. I want this book to reach people in every state, red and blue, across the country.
I want Elijah’s words to rise above partisanship. This is his message to American people from beyond the grave: They absolutely must defeat Donald Trump. Our democracy depends on it.
He firmly believed that if Donald Trump managed to get reelected then we would no longer have a democracy. He wanted the American people to know that. He spent the last year of his life pouring his heart and soul into this book so they could hear it, and now it’s time to get that message out.
What do you imagine will happen if President Trump does win reelection?
I think that we’ve already seen a preview of what’s going to happen: He’s going to become increasingly autocratic. We have already entered the realm of becoming a pariah nation, and I think that will become a bigger issue under a second term. He’s indicated that he wants to be President for life, which is against the Constitution. We know that he has flouted the law; we can expect to see that continue.
It’s going to be a terrible scenario, and Americans are going to suffer deeply.
But Elijah’s message is that we’re better than that. We can be better as long as we do better. His life was a testament about how we can achieve great things as a nation when we unify, when we push forward, and when we breathe life into those four words: a more perfect union.