Funeral service Friday for Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland

Free Press wire reports | 10/25/2019, 6 a.m.
Tributes continue to pour in for Congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, a moral voice of conscience who fought for ...
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings Patrick Semansky

Tributes continue to pour in for Congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, a moral voice of conscience who fought for civil rights and took on the White House as a prominent figure in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump as chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Rep. Cummings, a Democrat who has represented the Baltimore area in Congress since 1996, died Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, after complications from long-standing health problems. He was 68.

In tribute, Rep. Cummings body will lie in state Thursday, Oct. 24, in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced.

Lawmakers from both political parties are to speak at a formal ceremony there Thursday morning that is open to members of Congress, the Cummings family and invited guests, followed by a public viewing. Speakers will include House Speaker Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky; and Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina.

A wake and funeral is planned for Friday, Oct. 25, at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, where Rep. Cummings worshipped for nearly four decades.

Born to a family of Southern sharecroppers, Rep. Cummings was a formidable orator who advocated for the poor in his black-majority district of Baltimore.

“He was a political warrior — from his time serving in the Maryland General Assembly, as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, to his ascension as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee,” said Dr. Oliver Brooks, president of the National Medical Association that represents the nation’s African-American physicians.

“Congressman Cummings worked tirelessly to eliminate health disparities and advance policies to expand access to affordable and quality health care,” Dr. Brooks continued. “He was a lion with a gentle heart, dedicated to protecting the rights of the underserved and his constituents.”

In a testament to Rep. Cummings’ ability to forge friendships across the aisle during a time of intense political polarization, tributes poured in from across the political spectrum.

President Trump tweeted his condolences to the Cummings family and many friends.

“I got to see firsthand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader,” the president’s tweet stated.

He also ordered flags at the White House and other federal buildings to be flown at half-staff through Friday to honor Rep. Cummings.

Earlier this year, Rep. Cummings defended his city against President Trump, who criticized the Democrat’s district as a “rodent-infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Rep. Cummings replied that government officials must stop making “hateful, incendiary comments” that distract the nation from its real problems, including mass shootings and white supremacy.

“Those in the highest levels of the government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior,” Rep. Cummings said.

As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, a role he took on in January when he and his fellow Democrats took majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives, he led investigations into President Trump’s personal finances and possible abuses at federal agencies, including probes in 2019 relating to Trump family members serving in the White House.

Former President Obama, whose 2008 presidential bid counted Rep. Cummings as an early supporter, said he and his wife, former First Lady Michelle Obama, were “heartbroken” by the loss of their friend.

“He showed us all not only the importance of checks and balances within our democracy, but also the necessity of good people stewarding it,” President Obama said.

With Rep. Cummings’ death, Americans “have lost a great leader at a time of crisis in our democracy,” civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis said.

“When this nation needed him most, he became a moral voice ‘crying in the wilderness,’ and his words and actions called a reluctant nation to conscience,” the Georgia Democrat said in a statement.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a veteran Democrat from New York, will for now take over leadership of the House Oversight Committee, according to a senior Democratic leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the decision publicly.

The committee, authorized to investigate virtually any part of the federal government, is one of three conducting the House impeachment probe of President Trump. Rep. Cummings was among the three chairmen to sign a letter seeking documents into whether President Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the family of Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden. The committees have issued subpoenas of witnesses after the Trump administration’s refusal to cooperate with the impeachment probe and have jointly been meeting behind closed doors to hear testimony.

Separately, Rep. Cummings led an effort to gain access to President Trump’s financial records. His committee subpoenaed records from Mazars USA, an accounting firm that provided services to President Trump. The panel demanded documents from 2011 to 2018 as it probed the president’s reporting of his finances and potential conflicts of interest. Last week, a federal appeals court ruled the records must be turned over.

Rep. Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said in a statement: “He worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity and that our nation’s diversity was our promise, not our problem.”

Rep. Cummings was born Jan. 18, 1951. In grade school, a counselor told him he was too slow to learn and spoke poorly, and would never fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer.

“I was devastated,” Rep. Cummings told The Associated Press in 1996, shortly before winning his seat in Congress. “My whole life changed. I became very determined.”

It steeled Rep. Cummings to prove that counselor wrong. He became not only a lawyer, but one of the most powerful orators in the Maryland statehouse, where he entered office in 1983. He rose to become the first African-American House speaker pro tem, the member who presides in the speaker’s absence. He would begin his comments slowly, developing his theme and raising the emotional heat until it became like a sermon from the pulpit.

Rep. Cummings began his long push for civil rights at age 11 when he helped integrate a swimming pool in Baltimore. This year, during a speech to the American Bar Association in April, Rep. Cummings recalled how he and other black children organized protests with help from their recreation leader and the NAACP.

Every day for a week, when the children tried to get into the pool, they were spit upon, threatened and called names, Rep. Cummings said. He said he was cut by a bottle thrown from an angry crowd.

“The experience transformed my entire life,” he said.

Throughout his career, Rep. Cummings used his fiery voice to highlight the struggles and needs of inner-city residents. He believed in much-debated approaches to help the poor and addicted, such as needle exchange programs to reduce the spread of AIDS.

Rep. Cummings then chaired the Congressional Black Caucus from 2003 to 2004, employing a hard-charging, explore-every-option style to put the group in the national spotlight.

In 2015, when the death of black Baltimore resident Freddie Gray sparked the city’s worst riots in decades, Rep. Cummings carried a bullhorn in the streets and urged crowds to go home and respect a curfew. He spoke at Mr. Gray’s funeral, asking lawmakers in the church to stand up to show Mr. Gray’s mother they would seek justice.

“I want justice, oceans of it. I want fairness, rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want,” Rep. Cummings said, quoting the Bible.