Representative Elijah Cummings has passed away at the age of 68.
Mr. Cummings was a Democrat and served in the U. S. House Of Representatives from 1996 until his death. He chaired the Committee on Oversight and Reform, a position he assumed in January 2019. Prior to his service in the U.S. House, he was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1983 to 1996.
Mr. Cummings is survived by his wife Maya Rockeymoore Cummings and his daughter Jennifer J. Cummings.
My heart goes out to the Cummings family and their friends during this difficult time.
It’s been twenty-one years and I still think of him every day. His was the story that moved me to activism; to work harder for those who could not. And his is still the story that brings tears to my eyes.
Matthew was a gentle soul who I wish I’d the opportunity to know. But in the early hours of October 6th, 1998, he was beaten, tortured, lashed to a fence post, and left to die by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. When Matthew was found, his rescuers initially thought he was a scarecrow. He died six days later on October 12, 1998.
The story broke my heart and it brought me face to face, albeit not for the first time, with the murderous hatred that some harbor for LGBT people. For some reason, our very existence threatens their place in this world. We threaten their understanding of the way things are supposed to be, their beliefs, and we challenge their ideas of right and wrong. And in a world ruled by toxic masculinity, those threats can produce deadly results.
McKinney and Russell tried to use the gay panic defense but lost. They are both now serving two consecutive life sentences each as punishment for the life they took; a punishment that Matthew’s mother advocated for during the trial. She doesn’t believe in the death penalty and neither did Matthew; she felt that life imprisonment was what Matthew would have wanted. I believe she was right.
Over the years since his death, I’ve had the opportunity to meet Judy Shepard on a couple of occasions. She founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation shortly after Matthew passed and has been a tireless advocate for LGBT people all over the world since Matthew’s death. She’s truly a bright light in an ever-darkening world.
So today, I remember Matthew again as I do every year and every day. I light a candle for his memory and I recite a little prayer to the universe and I hope that he’s in a better place than the rest of us.
It was 33 years ago today; I remember it so well. I had faked being sick so I could stay home and watch the shuttle launch. It was carrying my hopes and dreams as one Christa McAuliffe was strapped into the orbiter, the first civilian to ever grace NASA’s shuttle program and who would become the first ‘Teacher In Space’. For a brief moment in time, for 73 seconds, the world watched as Ms. McAuliffe made history.
Then, 73 seconds after liftoff, at 11:39 A.M. EST, an O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster ruptured allowing burning gas to weaken and eventually fail the struts holding the solid rocket booster in place. The booster broke away from the launch system colliding with the external fuel tank and rupturing both internal fuel reservoirs allowing the fuel to combine and ignite as the burning gas from the ruptured solid rocket booster penetrated the external fuel tank. This caused a massive explosion and the complete structural failure of the launch system. The orbiter was torn apart by extreme aerodynamic stress caused by the external fuel tank explosion, allowing the crew compartment to be ejected from the destroyed orbiter and to plummet at terminal velocity into the Atlantic Ocean. All seven crew members were killed.
As I watched, everything I’d ever believed or hoped for or dreamed of vanished in the blink of an eye. The tears started as I listened to the CBS commentator describe what we were seeing: NASA has confirmed a catastrophic failure of the orbiter launch system; the external fuel tank has exploded; the orbiter is destroyed; the fate of the crew is unknown.
For a precious time, I held out hope for their survival. Even as the tears coated my cheeks and wet my shirt, I held out hope. After all, anything was possible, right?
But as the day moved on and the commentary continued and became more and more informed, my hope faded and eventually died. There was no sign of the orbiter; it had been completely destroyed and NASA eventually announced later that week that the crew was presumed dead. In a report later released by NASA, the indication was that three crew members actually did survive the initial explosion but the crew compartment, although over-engineered, had impacted the ocean surface at approximately 333 km/h with a deceleration at impact of well over 200g which is far beyond anything the crew could have survived.
My heart was broken. It took six months before my emotional state improved enough for me to even think about what had happened and even then, I would still break down into tears. Even today, after all these years, I still have a heavy heart. Time, of course, has softened the pain and anguish into a distant ache but at times I still feel like that little kid sitting in front of the television 33 years ago watching as his heroes died.
When I was a kid, I had this insane dream of being an astronaut. Now, I don’t share that with many people (they always laugh at me) but it’s true even though it was quite an impossible dream to have because my vision would never allow me to fly any aircraft let alone on the space shuttle. But when you’re a poor kid with very little to look forward to in life, that sort of stuff didn’t matter. And so I dreamed. I dreamed of what it would be like to be weightless in the silence of space. I dreamed of what it would be like to see the ice caps and the deserts all at once. I dreamed of what it would be like to be up there where the sky is no longer blue and stars are bright lights pinning up the black velvet of space’s sheer vastness. I dreamed as I followed Christa McAuliffe’s journey from New Hampshire high school teacher to payload specialist on board the space shuttle. And in 73 seconds those dreams died. Or at least it felt like that.
After a while, that feeling passed, though, and as the pain and heartache began to ebb, I began to look at things differently. I began to see that no matter how much seeing those men and women meet their fate hurt, I still wanted to be an astronaut. I still wanted to touch the sky and I realized that dreams don’t die, they just take hits, sometimes in very profound ways. I also came to realize that even in death Christa McAuliffe was still teaching and that I had learned a valuable lesson from her on January 28, 1986: Chase your dreams, no matter what. And while I’ve settled into the comfortable fact that I will never be an astronaut, sometimes I look up at the sky and I still dream of what it would be like.
So today, I remember. I remember those that came before and I remember those that came after. I remember the giants on whose shoulders we stand for the betterment of mankind. Today I remember The Challenger and her fearless crew. Godspeed STS-51-L, may the wind be forever at your backs.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and I would like to take a moment out of my frenzied posting today to remember all those that were lost to hate and intolerance and a moment to remember those that survived, like my friend Eva who is 89 years young and still remembers her days in a concentration camp. Those are memories no one should have to live with but she does and her strength and character are nothing shy of inspirational.
In Nazi, Germany, there were also 50,000+ LGBT men and women who were imprisoned, tortured and/or killed by the Nazis during WWII. As we’ve reclaimed the pink triangle as a symbol of LGBT solidarity and hope, we must never forget its origins. PinkNews in the UK has done the subject justice with a stark and vivid write-up on the origins of the pink triangle. You can read the full article here.
So today, pull those special to you close and remind them that they are loved and make a promise to them that, no matter what, we will never allow these atrocities to occur again. And take some of that for yourself too as we remember those that have come before us, those who have died to be who they are and those who are still fighting the battles of so many years ago.