Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., was a leader committed to the U.S. Constitution and a person deeply rooted in his community. But most important, people said during his funeral service, he was a good man.
“Elijah Cummings came from good soil. Goodness took root,” former President Barack Obama told more than 4,000 people gathered to bid farewell to the native son at West Baltimore’s New Psalmist Baptist Church, where Cummings had been a member for decades.
That good soil was celebrated over and over again at the service that also included former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a host of friends, staff and family, including comments from Cummings’ two daughters and his wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings.
The funeral capped three days of mourning and celebration. On Wednesday, Oct. 23, Morgan State University held a public viewing and the next day Cummings became the first African American congressman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. He was 68.
Bishop Walter Scott Thomas Sr., past of New Psalmist and a longtime friend of Cummings, welcomed a line of people that began forming long before dawn. The service featured a heartfelt performance by gospel singer BeBe Winans, who sang Stand, one of Cummings’ favorites and politicians from both sides of the aisle.
President Clinton remembered Cummings getting “banged on the head” as a child trying to help integrate a pool, how Clinton came to church with Cummings on the eve of his reelection and how Cummings worked hard to build bipartisan relationships. He “honored his oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Clinton said.
Hillary Clinton, who in 2016 lost her bid for U.S. president to Donald Trump, said, “Our Elijah … prayed and worked for healing. He weathered storms and earthquakes but never lost his faith.” Pelosi spoke of “Our darling Elijah” and his ability to bring lawmakers together in life and in death.
A touching tribute came from best friend Larry Gibson, whom Cummings called his mentor. The two attended the same high school, Baltimore City College, and later Howard University. Gibson was several years older than Cummings. At Howard, Cummings was student government president and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He attended the University of Maryland School of Law and ultimately received 13 honorary doctoral degrees.
Congressman Cummings began his career of public service in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he served for 14 years and became the first African American in Maryland history to be named Speaker Pro Tempore. From 1996 until 2019, he represented Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The congressman often said that his vote for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 was his most important. In 2014, he fought to include prostate cancer in the Compassionate Allowances listing, which enabled the Social Security Administration to cover medications and medical procedures, and provide financial support for men who could no longer work. More than a million men have benefitted from this policy, according to Cummings’ team.
Cummings, well known for chairing the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, also fought President Trump on many fronts, especially when it came to protecting immigrant children. The congressman’s outspokenness drew ire from Trump, who attacked Cummings and Baltimore. Cummings had been one of the first Congressional Black Caucus members to meet Trump in the White House after his election to discuss lowering prescription drug costs.
Trump offered his condolences from South Carolina, where he was attending a forum on criminal justice, recalling Cummings’ passion on lowering drug costs. On the previous day, lawmakers, including Vice President Mike Pence and Senate President Mitch McConnell, stood with Pelosi and other lawmakers in National Statuary Hall. McConnell, R-Ky., spoke, along with Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who remembered his unique friendship with Cummings.
Wednesday’s event at Morgan State University’s Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center featured remarks from a number of Maryland political leaders, including retired Sen. Barbara Milkuski, Sen. Ben Cardin and Sen. Chris Van Vollen. NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson also paid his respects to the congressman.
“As a devoted statesman to Baltimore and the civil rights movement, Rep. Cummings was among the most passionate and spirited members of Congress. He demanded justice on every front and never shied away from standing up for the most vulnerable,” Johnson said in a statement. “From his days in the Maryland General Assembly to his key role as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Congressman Cummings dedicated his life to combating oppression in all its forms — and holding oppressors accountable.”
During the funeral service, Cummings’ daughters Jennifer and Adia, spoke lovingly of their father’s commitment to social progress but mostly expressed their gratitude to him for being their father.
The congressman’s widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, said her husband had been in pain long before his death on Oct. 17 from health complications but that comments from Trump criticizing Cummings and calling Baltimore a rat-infested city where no one would want to live were also deeply painful. “It hurt,” she said, not mentioning Trump by name.
“And now he had to go on to actually work to fight for the soul of our democracy against very real corruption,” she said. “One thing that you do not know about Congressman Cummings is that he was a man of soul and spirit. He felt very deeply. He was very empathetic.”
Obama told attendees that Cummings was doggedly determined about his principles and was unafraid to treat others well. That took confidence and was a real test of manhood. “You’re not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect,” he said.
Bishop Thomas, who’d known Cummings for nearly 40 years, explained why Cummings was committed to having his funeral service at the church. He wanted people to celebrate his life there because he knew people needed a “re-grounding of your grounding,” Thomas said.
“Elijah came to church every week because he knew how easy it is to forget where you come from. … We have to make sure our nation does not forget the very things that have been planted in our spirit,” Thomas said. “Elijah brought you to church today so that moral compass can be reset so your grounding can get back, so that we can remember that we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, of which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He brought you to church to be re-grounded.”
The service ended with Lift Every Voice and Sing, often called the Black National Anthem.
As they waited for a commuter train at Baltimore’s Penn Station, Art Cohen, a Baltimore lawyer, and his wife, Diana Cohen, a community leader, said they felt privileged to get into the church after waiting in line for a few hours.
Art noted: “Elijah Cummings brought many, many people together.”
— Hamil R. Harris