Elijah Cummings Funeral: Watch Obama, Clinton Eulogize Baltimore's Favorite Son

Oct 25, 2019
Originally published on October 27, 2019 1:40 pm

Updated at 3 p.m. ET

If there were any doubts about the indelible legacy the late civil rights advocate and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings left in his nearly 40 years of public service, look no further than the political luminaries who delivered tributes at his funeral in Baltimore on Friday.

Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke, telling stories about a man who went from humble beginnings to occupy a place of power in the U.S. government.

"As a boy, Elijah's dad made him shine his shoes and tie his tie, and they would go to the airport — not to board the airplanes, but to watch others do it," Obama said. "I remember Elijah telling me this story. Robert would say, 'I have not flied. I may not fly. But you will fly one day.' "

Referring to the tradition of calling senior elected officials "the honorable," Obama said, "But Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office. There's a difference."

With a large crowd overflowing New Psalmist Baptist Church, Cummings' constituents shared their personal remembrances.

"He helped us many times in Baltimore," said educator Daniel Murray. "We'd be low on funds sometimes, he'd get with the mayor, get with the governor and push that funding for Baltimore city schools."

During the service, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, read passages from the Bible. Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP head whom Cummings replaced in Maryland's 7th Congressional District seat in 1996, addressed the capacity crowd, as did Cummings' widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and other family members.

Cummings, who was the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is remembered as a fierce champion of his district, which includes large swaths of inner-city Baltimore and surrounding suburbs. He died last week from longstanding health issues. He was 68.

"He was a wonderful man," said Lekiesha Dorsey. She and her mother, Tina, had come to the church but they weren't able to get in. She added, "I've just always known him to be a loving caring person and he was just always about the people the community no matter what race, age."

"He was just about love and just supported everybody," Dorsey said.

Friday's funeral at New Psalmist, where Cummings was a member for roughly four decades, was the culmination of three days of tributes in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Cummings lay in state on Thursday at the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. At a ceremony for lawmakers and relatives of Cummings, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., delivered an emotional eulogy calling Cummings "a dear friend" and spoke about what some have called an "unexpected friendship."

"Some have classified it as an unexpected friendship but for those of us that know Elijah," Meadows continued, "it's not unexpected or surprising."

He added: "Perhaps this place and this country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships ... I know I've been blessed by one."

On Wednesday, a steady stream of well-wishers came to pay tribute to Cummings, who lay in repose at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore.

Cummings was born and raised in Baltimore and lived there until his death. He was one of seven children, born to parents who had once been sharecroppers on the same land on which their ancestors were enslaved.

He rose from those humble beginnings to become the dean of Maryland's black elected officials and a leader in the U.S. Congress. After Democrats took control of the U.S. House earlier this year, Cummings became chairman of the Oversight Committee, one of three House committees leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

This summer, before the impeachment inquiry was launched, Cummings defended his beloved Baltimore after Trump disparaged the city in a series of tweets, calling it "disgusting" and "rat and rodent-infested."

Cummings fired back at Trump, saying he goes home daily, adding, "Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors." A few weeks later, he invited Trump to take a personal tour of Baltimore.

"I want him to come and look at my entire city. I'll ride with him for hours if he asked to," Cummings said at the National Press Club in August.

For many, Cummings' forceful defense of the city, coupled with the olive branch, reflected the strength and grit that embodies many Baltimore residents.

Before the sun rose Friday, mourners lined up for a public viewing before the funeral service of Rep. Elijah Cummings at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore.
Steve Ruark / AP

In 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody, Baltimore erupted in riots. Cummings, at the time one of the most powerful members in Congress, was in the streets of Baltimore with a bullhorn calling for calm.

Cummings is remembered as someone who relentlessly fought to lower the prices of prescription drugs and tighten gun laws and advocated for criminal justice reform. He introduced legislation that helped protect the rights of whistleblowers and bills to curb gun trafficking. According to his office, Cummings often said his 2010 vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act was the most important he ever cast.

He studied at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., and attended law school at the University of Maryland, graduating in 1976. He entered politics in 1982.

Cummings served 14 years in the Maryland House of Delegates. During that time, he became the first black person in the state's history to be named speaker pro tempore. After being elected to Congress in 1996 via special election, he held that seat until his death last week.

"I thought that Elijah would make a great mayor of the city and possibly the governor of the state. But he enjoyed being a lawmaker," former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, told NPR last week.

"There was something about Congress that kind of kept him grounded in his neighborhood and the community," said Schmoke, who is now the president of the University of Baltimore, before adding: "And he just really loved it."

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has until Monday to announce a date for a special election for Cummings' vacant seat. According to Maryland state law, the primary election must be held at least 65 days after the governor announces the official proclamation that the seat is vacant. A special general election would then take place no fewer than 65 days after that.

: 10/24/19

A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Elijah Cummings' widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, as Maya Rockeymore Cummings.

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Political leaders past and present came to Baltimore today to mourn Congressman Elijah Cummings. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were among those who paid tribute to the Maryland Democrat. Cummings died last week at the age of 68. His family, friends and colleagues today remembered him as a trailblazer, a mentor and an unwavering defender of both his native city and his country. NPR's Brakkton Booker was at the service and has this report.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Elijah Cummings planned every detail of his funeral, including what Grammy Award-winning singer BeBe Winans would sing.


BEBE WINANS: (Singing) After you've cried and prayed and done all you can...

BOOKER: The funeral was both a celebration of Cummings and a call to action, to fight for democracy and respect your political opponents like Cummings did. Former President Barack Obama, the nation's first black commander in chief, said it was Cummings' life that reflects the American dream.


BARACK OBAMA: His life validates the things we tell ourselves about what's possible in this country - not guaranteed, but possible - the possibility that our destinies are not preordained.

BOOKER: Elijah Cummings was born and raised in Baltimore, the son of sharecroppers. At the time of his death, Cummings had become one of the most powerful members of Congress. And at a time when America's political divisions run deep, including Washington being in the middle of an impeachment inquiry, Obama says Cummings served with dignity.


OBAMA: Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected office. There's a difference if you are honorable and treated others honorably.


BOOKER: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose brother and father served as mayors of Baltimore, referred to Cummings as her Baltimore brother and called him the North Star of Congress, always willing to reach across the aisle.


NANCY PELOSI: He made a difference in so many ways - fighting for gun violence prevention, recognizing the costs of prescription drugs hurt the health and economic well-being of America's working families, expanding opportunity for everyone.

BOOKER: When Democrats took control of the House earlier this year, Cummings became chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee. It's one of the panels leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it's no coincidence Elijah Cummings shared the same name with a biblical prophet. That prophet Elijah, she says, fought against corrupt leadership.


HILARY CLINTON: Like that Old Testament prophet, our Elijah could call down fire from heaven.


BOOKER: When it was time for Cummings' widow Maya Rockeymoore Cummings to speak, she thanked the capacity of 4,000 attendees for giving him the opportunity to serve them. She says the last few months were difficult and not just because of his illness.


MAYA ROCKEYMOORE CUMMINGS: What Congressman Chairman Cummings did was not easy, and it got infinitely more difficult in the last months of his life, when he sustained personal attacks and attacks on his beloved city.

BOOKER: She's referring to a summer tweet storm from President Trump, where he called Baltimore rat and rodent-infested and attacked Cummings' character. But, she said, her husband soldiered on.


ROCKEYMOORE CUMMINGS: He had to go on to actually work to fight for the soul of our democracy against very real corruption.

BOOKER: Cummings leaves behind a wife and two daughters and legions of friends. One of them, Kweisi Mfume, the former head of the NAACP.


KWEISI MFUME: He could be both provocative and evocative. He found a way to capture our will to dare to be different in communities all over the country, and then challenged us to dare to make a difference.

BOOKER: Mfume says Cummings made a difference in so many lives.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) ...With my soul.


BOOKER: Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALOS' "LIGHT (INTERLUDE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.