In the early morning hours of Oct. 17, the world lost one of its greatest champions for true health equity. Congressman Elijah Cummings passed away at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
Rep. Cummings means so much to so many people. But for those of us in the black/African-American community who have been impacted by HIV, his unrepentant leadership changed and saved countless lives. Cummings lived through the AIDS crisis, which ravaged community after community. Judging by the media coverage at the time, HIV seemed to be an existential crisis centered in the white gay community. That was not true then — and it is not true now.
“Congressman Cummings was a civil rights giant that epitomized that ending HIV is a civil rights issue, said Raniyah Copeland, President and CEO with Black AIDS Institute. “His tireless leadership and commitment to equity was a model for what Black leadership can look like. We all honor his legacy by taking the baton to the finish line and enacting HIV ending policies in Black communities.”
The representative would walk through the streets of West Baltimore and see firsthand that HIV went much further than a community unknown to his constituents. Cummings stated, “When I was a young lawyer just elected to the Maryland Legislature, AIDS was a killer without a name — a threat that people feared even to mention.” He went on to say that within our community, “[residents] incorrectly believed that the disease was a danger only to ‘someone else,’ someone who did not look like us. Now, decades later, we know that the early doubters within our community were wrong. For far too many of our neighbors, their mistake was deadly.”
Cummings was always ahead of his time in respect to health equity and access to care. The federal government is now catching up to warnings that the congressmember stated over a decade ago. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), informs us that while black/African-American people account for only 13% of the U.S. population, blacks represent 43% of the nearly 39,000 new infections every year. Furthermore, nearly 7,000 black people diagnosed with HIV die each year due to a variety of causes.
What we see in the clinics and morgues across America today tells us that he was right. Too many black men, especially gay and bisexual men, are suffering from the consequences of the delayed and muted response to the impact of HIV in the black community. From 2010 to 2016, the rate of new HIV diagnoses for gay and bisexual men overall has remained stable. But for black gay and bisexual men, we have seen an increase of 40% in diagnoses for those aged 25 to 34 years. The CDC states that the confluence of stigma, fear, discrimination, and homophobia contributes to African Americans being at higher risk for HIV.
As one of the heroes to the black HIV response, Cummings was clear that we must combat those social ills. For example, he utilized any and all platforms to get messages out about the impact of HIV. This year during Black History Month, on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, he tweeted, “We must come together to inform our community and stop the HIV stigma that exists. I urge everyone to get educated, get tested and get treatment.” Increasing awareness is one of the best methods to reduce stigma, especially in the global response to HIV. His continual advocacy to increase awareness of HIV, especially for the black LGBTQ+ community, was well received.
In respect to human sexuality, Cummings stated that he had evolved on issues such as marriage equity to include unions between same-sex couples. In 2012, as Maryland was about to vote to permit same-sex marriage prior to the Supreme Court ruling, he stated, “My position is we have one life to live. This is no dress rehearsal. And this is their life … I’m hoping that [same-sex marriage] passes and that people will have an opportunity to live the very best life that they can, period.” He was right. The people of Maryland passed it.
As a leading member and former chairperson of the Congressional Black Caucus, Cummings had his finger on the pulse of societal issues that impact the health of the black community at large. In 2014, Cummings famously joined Senate Chaplin Barry Black and Rep. Marc Veasey by participating in the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” walk-out of Congress in response to the lack of indictments of police officers responsible for the deaths of unarmed black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner. He called for federal criminal justice reform and police accountability measures. And just a year later, when his hometown of Baltimore was about to fall into riots after the death of Freddie Gray while he was handcuffed and in police custody, Cummings called for calm on the streets and his voice was heeded. He clearly commands the respect of each and every person.
On this day, we lost a hero. Someone who served the people. Someone who spoke of the people. Someone who spoke to the people. But it is safe to say that his big, booming voice will be heard for years to come. As we address the unacceptable and outsized impact of HIV in black communities, we have — thanks in large part to this man — a road map for a better future and a call to action for improved health outcomes for HIV-impacted populations.
Representative Elijah Eugene Cummings’ words of a decade ago still ring true: “Only a renewed public health movement in our communities can successfully vanquish this deadly disease. … Silence about AIDS [will] feed this destroyer of lives.”
We must get to work.