BALTIMORE >> Rep. Elijah E. Cummings was firmly rooted in Baltimore, but for decades his voice extended far from his brick rowhouse on the city’s west side. Today, the legacy of his tireless advocacy brought powerful leaders from Washington and elsewhere to his city.
Cummings, a Democrat who rose in prominence in recent years for his unwavering pursuit of President Donald Trump, died at 68 last week in the city he called home, the same one in which he was born and lived all his life.
Among the prominent cast of politicians, mentees and relatives expected to speak at his funeral this morning were two former presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, as well as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate.
Following a psalm read by Warren and a song from one of Cummings’ favorite singers, BeBe Winans, Hillary Clinton took the stage and thanked members of Cummings’ district “for sharing him with our country and the world.”
Clinton said Cummings never backed down in the face of abuses of power or from “those who put party ahead of country or partisanship above truth.”
“But he could find common ground with anyone willing to seek it with him,” she continued. “And he liked to remind all of us that you can’t get so caught up in who you are fighting that you forget what you are fighting for.”
Pelosi asked attendees how many had been mentored by Cummings, and at least a dozen raised their hands. She recalled that he had sought to mentor as many freshman representatives as he could after Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 election.
“By example, he gave people hope,” she said.
Pelosi had spoken at another funeral in Baltimore on Wednesday for her own brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III, a former mayor of the city.
Earlier in the morning, thousands of grieving Baltimoreans stood in looping lines as the sun rose outside of New Psalmist Baptist Church, which seats 4,000 people and filled up shortly before 10, with many still outside. It is the same church where Cummings sat in the front row most Sundays even after he began using a walker and wheelchair.
Cummings’ body lay in an open coffin at the front of the church today, his left hand resting on his right as mourners passed by and a choir sang gospel music. An usher stood nearby with a box of tissues in each hand.
Elonna Jones, 21, skipped her classes at the University of Maryland to attend with her mother, Waneta Ross, who nearly teared up as she contemplated Baltimore’s loss.
“He believed in the beauty of everything, especially our city,” Ross said. “It’s important we’re here to honor a civil rights activist who was still around in my generation.”
Jones, a volunteer coordinator for a City Council candidate, said Cummings had motivated her to pursue a role in improving her city.
“As a young, black woman in Baltimore who wants to be in politics, he inspired me,” she said.
Mourning residents stood in black coats, hats and heels and sang Cummings’ praises as police corralled the extended lines of people who woke up early to pay their respects. Above all, attendees noted, he always looked out for his city.
“He never forgot who we were,” said Bernadette McDonald, who lives in West Baltimore. “He was a son of Baltimore and a man of the people.”
The big names on the service’s agenda, the television cameras lined up outside and the large crowd belied the way many attendees interacted with the devoted congressman, who lived in the heart of West Baltimore and would simply give a knowing nod to those who recognized him on the street. He carried himself like anyone else when running errands or taking a walk around the block.
“If you didn’t already know him, you wouldn’t know who he was,” McDonald said.
Cummings saw his profile rise in recent years as he sparred with Trump, pursuing the president, his businesses and his associates as head of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Cummings became a leading figure in the impeachment inquiry and was said to still be joining strategy discussions with colleagues from his hospital bed.
Rhonda Martin, who works at a local high school, said Cummings had inspired the next generation of Baltimore’s leaders by speaking to students in schools around the city.
“He brought a message of hope and told students that he did it, and they can do it, too,” Martin said.
Cummings, whose parents were former sharecroppers in South Carolina, graduated from Howard University in Washington and earned a law degree at the University of Maryland. He was first elected to Congress in 1996 and never faced a serious challenge over 11 successful reelection campaigns.
On Thursday, Cummings’ body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol, the first black lawmaker to do so, and Republicans and Democrats praised his integrity and his commitment to his constituents.
Over more than two decades in Congress, Cummings championed working people, environmental reform and civil rights. He served for two years as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and frequently spoke of his neighborhood while pushing legislation to lower drug prices, promoting labor unions and seeking more funding for affordable housing.
Even in his war of words with the president, the battle made its way to Baltimore when, in July, Trump called Cummings’ district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and appeared to make light of a break-in at Cummings’ home, during which the congressman scared an intruder away.
The president’s insults still anger Baltimore residents. “See? We’re not all trash and rats,” one congregant said as she sat down in the church today.
Cummings responded to the president by saying it was his “moral duty” to fight for residents in his district. “Each morning, I wake up,” he wrote, “and I go and fight for my neighbors.”
Jennifer Cummings, one of Cummings’ two daughters, recalled early morning calls from her father on her birthdays and the ice cream they shared in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Reading from a letter to her father, Cummings said her father had taught her to “love my blackness” by insisting on buying her dolls with brown skin and telling her to appreciate her lips and nose.
While she was proud of all the titles he held over his life, “perhaps the most important title you held in your 68 years on earth was dad,” she said.
One of Cummings’ brothers, James Cummings, said that in one of their last conversations, the congressman spoke of his heartbreak over the unsolved killing of James’ 20-year-old son, Christopher Cummings, in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2011.
The killing “haunted Elijah for the rest of his life,” James said.
Adia Cummings, the congressman’s other daughter, said Cummings always challenged her and her sister to be better people. And even though he would nudge her about owing him money, he rarely turned down her requests, even recently making sure that she could attend a concert for the rapper Cardi B.
“He didn’t really know who she was, but he went out of his way, even from his sick bed, to make sure I could go see her,” she said.
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Cummings’ wife and chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, gave a fiery speech that brought multiple rounds of applause and many congregants to their feet more than once. And while she did not cite Trump by name, she invoked him clearly, saying her husband’s work had become “infinitely more difficult” in the last few months of his life because of “sustained personal attacks” on him and his city. “It hurt him,” Rockeymoore Cummings said.
Looking at Obama, she recalled that Cummings had stood with the former president early and proudly. “But you didn’t have any challenges like we have going on now,” she added with a smile, as Obama nodded and responded with an appreciative chuckle.
Rockeymoore Cummings said she felt as if people were trying to tear her husband down, and that the celebrations and outpouring of love this week had assured her that he was sent off with the respect he deserved.
Two days before Cummings died, his wife said, the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital had wheeled him up to the roof to see the sun and look over the city he never left.
“Boy, have I come a long way,” he said, according to Rockeymoore Cummings.