By Conor McGinley and Zaria Nabinett
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Thousands of people from throughout the region crowded inside the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore Friday to bid farewell to U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings – a man known as a voice of reason who spent his career fighting for equal rights.
Former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton delivered emotional eulogies that stirred the capacity crowd of 4,000 and painted Cummings as a man of honor who wore his emotions on his sleeve and gave strength to those around him.
“His life validates the things we tell ourselves about what’s possible in this country,” Obama said. “Not guaranteed, but possible. The possibility that our destinies are not pre-ordained, but rather through our works and our dedication and our willingness to open our hearts to God’s message of love for all people, we can live a purposeful life.”
Clinton said Cummings may be gone, but his voice will always be present.
“I love this man. I love every minute I ever spent with him, every conversation we’ve ever had. I loved his booming voice,” he said. “But we should hear him now in the quiet times of night when we need the courage. We get discouraged and we don’t know what to believe anymore.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remembered Cummings as a man who could work with those with whom he disagreed. She said the 68-year-old Baltimore Democrat never forgot that he was sent to Congress to do the people’s work, not quarrel endlessly with his political opponents.
“He could find common ground with anyone willing to seek it with him, 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,” Clinton said. “Even his political adversaries recognized that it wasn’t really about politics for our Elijah. He led from his soul.”
Maya Rockeymoore-Cummings said her husband was told he had six months to live when he was diagnosed with a deadly medical condition over 25 years ago. He fought tirelessly to preserve American democracy far beyond his expected time, she said, adding that he did so with love and a desire to better the lives of everyone around him.
Cummings died on Oct. 17 from long standing health complications at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was the first African American to lay in repose in Washington – in the same place as President Abraham Lincoln. He was also remembered during a ceremony at Morgan State University on Wednesday.
Cummings has represented Maryland’s 7th congressional district since 1996. He was the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform and was playing an instrumental role in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. One of his last acts in Congress was to sign subpoenas for documents related to the administration’s policy to deport critically ill children.
People from throughout the region gathered to celebrate Cummings’ life. Despite such a rueful reason for assembling, the attendees met each other with open arms and smiles as old friends reconnected outside the peaceful Psalmist Baptist Church.
Deacons and deaconesses warmly greeted public mourners as they entered the church. The hall was filled with music from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the 150-person New Psalmist Baptist Church Choir.
The stage was lit in purple and decorated with pictures from the various stages of Cummings’ life. There were bright flower bouquets on display and the two large screens to either side showed various videos from Cummings’ and his time of service.
Entrances from Obama, both Clintons, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nearly cost the church a new roof with the noise. An even bigger cheer followed as Cummings’ family entered the church.
Pelosi called Cummings “The North Star of Congress.” Like Cummings, she said, all people should be a guiding light for children. “He wanted those children to have a future worthy of their aspirations,” she said.
“How brilliant was it of Elijah’s parents to name him ‘Elijah,’” Pelosi said. “As we know from the Old Testament, there’s a tradition to leave a seat at the table for Elijah who might show up. But our Elijah also made a seat at the table for others.”
Elijah E. Cummings was born to sharecropper parents. As an honors’ students at Baltimore City College High School and sophomore class president at Howard University, Cummings led a life full of leadership, perseverance and resiliency. Pursuing his Juris Doctor from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1976, he has received a total of 13 honorary doctoral degrees from various American universities.
Cummings is a proud civil rights activist, who’s bold and pronounced voice has been heard throughout his career, but mostly throughout the Trump presidency. Until his death, he remained dedicated to the protection of his Baltimore home and the American people.
The Rev. Matthew L. Matley provided the invocation and introduced Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge to read sections from the Old Testament. A musical performance personally requested by Cummings saw R&B singer Bebe Winas spread his energy throughout an already atmospheric hall.
The casket slowly closed as the honor guard draped the American flag on top. The Cummings family took one last look at their loved one.
“There’s something about his voice that just makes you feel better,” Obama said. “Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office. There’s a difference. There is a difference if you are honorable and treated others honorably outside the limelight.”
One of Cummings’ many mentees, Harry Spikes, said he served as a district director, chef, bodyguard, mechanic, driver and friend of the late congressman. Spikes said he thought his work for Cumming was only temporary but soon learned that he would be working for “an angel.”
Another mentee, John Alexander, remembered one day when Cummings was late for a floor vote because he was helping fix someone’s tire.
Residents of Baltimore also remembered Cummings as a man who tried hard to help his community.
“The local officials and people in power should follow his footsteps,” said Baltimore resident Martin O’Loughlin. Bernadette Pettigrew, also of Baltimore, said Cummings was willing to help city neighborhoods in any way he could.
“He helped our community overcome rodents to racism and a lot of things in between,” Pettigrew said. She said she hopes others learn from his “calmness in the midst of anger” and to “keep on believing what he is saying, that you can do anything.”
Leanna Wen, a former president of Planned Parenthood and Baltimore health commissioner, said Cummings was a man of generosity and passion who tried to improve the wellbeing of everyone in his beloved city.
“Whenever we needed funding for mental health, dental health, child health, violence prevention – any program to help our residents — Congressman Cummings fought for us and he got us the resources,” Wen said. “What we do is about saving lives.”
When Wen had a miscarriage, she said Cummings and Maya Cummings provided warm support.
“He reminded me that every season there’s a reason,” Wen said. “We must always let our conscious guide our conduct.”
Wen and her husband named their 2-year-old son Eli after the late congressman, which brought Cummings to tears when he was told.
Kweisi Mfume, the former president and C.E.O of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a former congressman from Maryland’s 7th district, said he was friends with Cummings since the beginning of their legal careers.
Mfume spoke highly of Cummings’ parents and the role they played in his upbringing. He said Cummings rarely missed an opportunity to recognize his mother and father for the lessons he learned from them.
As Maya Cummings closed out her late husband’s celebration by individually thanking Obama, the Clintons, Pelosi, and others, she said: “I want you all to know what congressman, chairman Cummings did was not easy. It got infinitely more difficult in the last months of his life when he sustained personal attacks and attacks on his beloved city. And while he carried himself with grace and dignity, it hurt him.”
“This was a man with the utmost integrity,” she shouted. “Do you hear me? He had integrity and cared about our democracy. He cared about our community. He cared about our planet. He wanted to make sure we led a society worthy of our children.”
With a diagnosis that almost promised to cut his life shorter than today, Maya said, “He kept going. He kept fighting. He kept standing. He kept working. And it was my distinct honor and privilege to be his spouse.”