Let’s put a little historical perspective around today’s voting in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, a special primary election to replace the late Rep. Elijah Cummings.
It’s a district that was trashed last July by President Donald Trump, who’s never even been there, because he didn’t like it when Cummings dared to criticize him.
It’s a district that takes in some of the toughest, hungriest streets of Baltimore City’s west side, which includes streets made infamous by the Freddie Gray convulsions, and it also takes in some pretty nice areas of Baltimore and Howard counties.
And it’s a district that, across the decades, produced a whole bunch of people who made America swell with pride.
The question for today’s voters is whether there’s anyone in the entire crowd of 32 candidates, Democratic and Republican, who can restore some sense of greatness to the district.
Or whether the neediest areas will remain heavy on poverty, heavy on crime and grime, and heavy on narcotics.
And yet, to look at the history of this part of the city is to wonder how things went so dreadfully wrong.
You know who came out of old West Baltimore?
Jerry Leiber did. He’s the Jewish kid who teamed up with Mike Stoller back in the 1950s to write such seminal rock ‘n’ roll romps as “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley, “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy” for The Coasters, and produced “There Goes My Baby,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway” for The Drifters.
Cab Calloway came out of this West Baltimore, too. He came up through neighborhood clubs, tutored by the legendary drummer Chick Webb. Cab went on to a half-century career as band leader and singer. He immortalized the Cotton Club of Harlem. He gave the world “Minnie the Moocher” and “St. James Infirmary.” Chick Webb gave the world his fabulous drumming and his great jazz band. He also gave us a young singer he introduced to the whole world named Ella Fitzgerald.
Thurgood Marshall came out of this West Baltimore, too. As the NAACP’s chief counsel, he won 28 of 32 U.S. Supreme Court cases, including the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that integrated America’s public schools. Then, he became a revered Supreme Court justice.
Clarence Mitchell Jr. also came out of this West Baltimore. As the NAACP’s chief lobbyist, he testified so many times on Capitol Hill that he became known as “the 101st Senator.” He helped integrate government offices that had always been reserved strictly for white people. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Anne Wiggins Brown came out of this West Baltimore as well, with such a voice to melt hearts that George Gershwin not only cast her in an opera he was writing but changed its title to reflect her starring role in the original cast. He called it “Porgy and Bess.”
And the fellow who played Sportin’ Life in that opera, Avon Long, also came out of West Baltimore, and so did Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Lillie Carroll Jackson, godmothers of the civil rights movement in Baltimore, and Parren Mitchell, the first black congressman out of Baltimore.
There was greatness in the very veins of that West Baltimore, and surely still is, struggling to make itself felt. It’s an area whose greatest people once convinced the downtrodden it was possible to dream.
So they go to the polls today, and when they look over the list of candidates, they have to ask themselves not only who looks like the best person to carry out the legacy of Elijah Cummings but who can help restore the sense of possibilities that once came out of West Baltimore.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.