When Rep. Elijah Cummings departed this earth in the wee hours of October 17, 2019 following a series of health challenges, America lost a Congressman and a patriot. Baltimore, the city where Cummings was born and raised, lost a native son.
“Elijah” as many friends and constituents simply called him, was the kind of elected official who could be seen pushing his cart down the aisles of Whole Foods Market. You might run into him soaking up Black history at the city’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum. Or while dining at IHOP in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
The Congressman hosted an annual jobs fair that drew thousands, a Congressional art competition for high schoolers, and seminars for prospective college students. He was a consistent presence, advocating for organizations such as Roberta’s House, a grief center in the city, and Associated Black Charities, a community nonprofit. A gifted orator, the lawmaker delivered speeches in his trademark booming voice at countless high school and college graduations.
And when his beloved community erupted in unrest following the 2015 police custody death of Freddie Gray, Cummings took to the streets of Baltimore with clergy and fellow leaders to urge calm.
“He was such a courageous, highly principled official,” said William `Billy’ Murphy, Jr., a prominent Baltimore attorney who represented Gray’s family. “It was wonderful to watch him transform politically; he found his militant voice. He was like a rose blooming.”
Cummings—born to former South Carolina sharecroppers who migrated to Baltimore in the 1940s— grew up amongst loving parents, six siblings, and the church in a segregated, hardworking and nurturing African American community.
As a child, he worked as a paperboy, walking miles across the city first thing in the morning to deliver the AFRO-American Newspaper. A few weeks before his death, Cummings was keynote speaker at the 85th Anniversary of the AFRO Clean Block community event. He shared how elated he was when one of his customers gave him a tip. “It was $1 dollar, and I thought I was rich,” he quipped.
At age 11, Cummings participated in his first civil rights demonstration to integrate a South Baltimore swimming pool and was pelted with rocks and bottles by Whites. The demonstration was organized by Baltimore’s local NAACP and such leaders as the late Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first African American woman to practice law in Maryland. “This 1962 event taught me that I had rights and that I had to fight for them,” Cummings wrote in a Facebook post.
Since that time he’s been fighting for people and the nation with “unwavering commitment,” according to his longtime friend and colleague, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD).
“Elijah and I shared a city, an alma mater, a love of the law and a life of public service,” said Cardin. “Quite possibly no elected official mattered so much to his constituents. [He] guaranteed a voice to so many who would otherwise not have one, and stood as a symbol for the heights one could reach if they paid no mind to obstacles, naysayers and hate.”
Indeed, the 68 years of Cummings’ extraordinary life were a study in overcoming poverty, low expectations and leaping over barriers.
“I spent my first six years of school in Special Ed,” said Cummings in a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation video released earlier this year titled ‘Who I Am.’ “And they said I’d never be a damn thing. Said I’d never be able to read or write. But that happened to a lot of little Black boys when I was growing up. It was a like a place to put us.”
Despite those early academic predictions, Cummings became a stellar student, graduating with honors from Baltimore City College High School in 1969. Later, at Howard University, he served as Student Government President and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1973 with a political science degree.
“Congressman Cummings was educated by world-class political science faculty experts.” said Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., Howard University’s president. “[His] student experience in this environment propelled his lifetime of honorable public service.”
Cummings entered the University of Maryland School of Law, graduating in 1976; three years later he opened a Baltimore law firm with fellow African-American lawyer, Ed Smith. By 1983, Cummings had won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates; during his 14-years in that body, the Democrat became Speaker Pro Tem, the first African American so named in Maryland history.
In 1996, Cummings emerged from a crowded field of candidates to be elected Maryland’s 7th District Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. The seat, previously held by former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume and the late Parren J. Mitchell, a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, has for decades been a Democratic stronghold and power base for Maryland’s African American politicians.
Cummings used that influence in the early days of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, backing the then largely unknown U.S. Senator. In a statement, the 44th president expressed that he and Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, were “heartbroken” about the passing of their friend.
“It’s a tribute to his native Baltimore that one of its own brought such character, tact, and resolve into the halls of power every day,” said Obama. “And true to the giants of progress he followed into public service, Chairman Cummings stood tallest and most resolute when our country needed him the most.”
As Chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee, Cummings was charged with Congressional checks and balances of the country’s democratic process, including the current impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Yet even though Trump lashed out at Cummings and Baltimore this past summer, Tweeting that the lawmaker’s district was “a rat and rodent-infested, disgusting mess,” the Congressman took the high road. Cummings later said he would welcome the Commander in Chief to tour the city and help tackle the issues impacting urban centers nationwide.
His legislative initiatives ran the gamut, ranging from a `ban the box’ proposal to help the formerly incarcerated find jobs without stigma, to co-sponsoring a measure to put Maryland native Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Cummings was passionate about youth, visiting the city’s Health Department to discuss maternal health and babies, or facilitating a leadership program that took youth to Israel. He often said: “Our children are our gift to a future we will never see.”
Fellow Baltimore native, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called Cummings a “North Star” in Congress. From Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, (D-NY) to Republicans to his Maryland Congressional delegation colleagues, Cummings is being remembered as smart, thoughtful, and a defender of Constitutional principles.
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the 55-member body which Cummings led from 2003-2004, issued a statement: “To many, Elijah was a friend and mentor, but to the members of the CBC, Elijah was family.” Many members of Congress told BET they are in mourning.
“There are no words that are sufficient in describing the immense sorrow I feel following the passing of my dear colleague and friend,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who served as a mentor to Cummings when he first entered Congress.
“Elijah was a great man, a magnificent leader,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). “He was a kind and gentle human being [who] led with both his head and his heart.”
Across Baltimore and beyond, tributes have poured in. At the Congressman’s district office in Baltimore, staffers were teary as the phone rang off the hook with people sharing condolences. Flowers piled up outside his Baltimore residence.
Dr. Jamal H. Bryant, a former Baltimore pastor now at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia, said Cummings was a “mentor” and champion “for those who are often overlooked and unheard in communities across America.”
Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Black think tank, praised Cummings’ commitment to inclusion and opportunity.
“He had a common touch that gave voice to Americans from some of the most marginalized communities in our nation and he also worked effectively with Americans from all racial, religious, and political backgrounds,” said Overton. “He always focused on service to others—to Baltimore, to Black communities nationwide, to our nation, and to future generations.”
Cummings spoke often of his faith in God. He was a longtime member of New Psalmist Baptist Church, a large African American congregation in Baltimore.
“Elijah Cummings was a giant among men, whose impact upon lives reached far beyond the boundaries of this city,” said pastor Bishop Walter S. Thomas, Sr. “He made sure that everyone knew that faith without works is dead.”
Cummings was married to Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and has three adult children and numerous relatives. Cummings will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol (Statuary Hall) next Thursday, Oct. 24. A private ceremony will be held for members of Congress, relatives and guests with a public viewing following. A public wake and funeral will be held on Friday, Oct. 25 beginning at 8 a.m. at New Psalmist in Baltimore.
“Rest easy, Congressman,” said Baltimore Mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young in a statement. “We love you and will draw strength by remembering your selfless acts of service and dedication to pursuing equality and basic human rights for all people.”
(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)