Baltimore neighbors and residents talk about what Rep. Elijah Cummings meant to them
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings — the son of sharecroppers who rose to become a House committee chairman and Baltimore icon — often spoke of the need to leave a legacy for “generations unborn,” but said he was unsure how his own contributions might be remembered.
“I’m here for a season and a reason," the veteran Democratic lawmaker said this summer in his Capitol Hill office, sitting below framed photographs of civil rights leaders Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King. "I don’t know why I’m here, I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but I’m here. And I’m going to make the best of it.”
Colleagues defined Cummings’ legacy as his devotion to Baltimore and civil rights, and his adherence to civility in a fractured political climate, even as he pursued an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump from his role as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Cummings, 68, died about 2:45 a.m. Thursday due to complications from longstanding health problems. He was a patient of Gilchrist Hospice Care, a member of his staff said.
“He used to always say, ‘Our children are our living messengers to a future we will never see,’” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “He wanted to be sure that that future was going to be better for them and that they would bring with them our values.”
Other members of Congress said Cummings would be remembered for preaching calm, and his frequent exhortations of “We are better than this!”
He “brought peace where there was no peace,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said on the House floor. He recalled Cummings walking the streets of Baltimore, counseling against violence during unrest following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody. Cummings was among the speakers at Gray’s funeral, asking people if they truly “saw” Gray before he died.
His constituents framed his legacy as that of a father figure and a civil rights icon, ranking him with the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“He stood up, put himself out there so we could get a better life," said Matthew Hubbard, 45, a barber in West Baltimore.
As part of his own thinking about his legacy, Cummings said he tried to set an example for younger members of his committee, such as the outspoken progressives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
“One day, they’ll be sitting in Pelosi’s shoes,” Cummings said. “Nelson Mandela said ... the greatest person and the strongest person is the one who was able to hold their emotions in when they feel they should strike out. And I believe in that. If you ever hear me raise my voice, it’s because I believe that somebody is trying to get something over on me.”
Cummings had been absent from Capitol Hill in recent weeks while he was sick. But his death came as a surprise, as it was not known publicly he was in hospice care, when medical and other services are provided for people who are terminally ill. Cummings’ staff did not say why or when he was moved to hospice care and did not respond to questions about the cause of death.
Bishop Walter Thomas of New Psalmist Baptist Church, where Cummings worshiped for nearly 40 years, said he spoke with Cummings as he was going into hospice and said the congressman was there “for only a matter of hours.” Thomas declined to comment further, citing pastoral confidentiality.
The congressman’s wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, said in a statement that “he worked until his last breath.”
Cummings had not participated in a House roll call vote since Sept. 11. He missed a key committee hearing in mid-September, and his office said then he had undergone a medical procedure. Statements from his office suggested he would be back in a week or so, and later that he would return when the House came back Tuesday from a recess, but Cummings did not appear.
“I did not know he was this gravely ill,” said Larry Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor and civil rights activist who knew Cummings for more than 50 years and said he spoke with him last week. “He would tell me I was his mentor. He was my brother. He was my friend.”
Cummings had other health issues in recent years. In 2017, he underwent a procedure to correct a narrowing of the aortic valve in the heart. The surgery led to an infection that kept him in the hospital longer than expected. He was later hospitalized for a knee infection, but he said this summer that his health was fine. In recent years, Cummings used a wheelchair to get around and braced himself with a walker when he stood.
According to state law, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will need to announce plans by Oct. 28 for a primary and a general election to fill the vacancy.
The committee Cummings chaired is among three panels leading the impeachment inquiry of Trump, a Republican. Under House rules, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York becomes acting chairwoman because she ranked second in seniority on the committee, said a senior Democratic leadership aide. A caucus process to elect a permanent chair has not yet been announced.
Previously a trial attorney and Maryland state delegate, Cumming had been a member of Congress since 1996. He became a national figure in 2019 as chairman of the committee. With Democrats assuming the House majority after the 2018 elections, he won the ability to demand documents related to Trump’s personal finances and policies, as well as possible abuses at federal agencies.
Bishop Walter Thomas, of New Psalmist Baptist Church, reacts to the death of Congressman Elijah Cummings, a longtime member of the church.
Hogan called Cummings “a fierce advocate for civil rights and for Maryland for more than three decades. Congressman Cummings leaves behind an incredible legacy of fighting for Baltimore city and working to improve people’s lives.”
In the U.S. House, Cummings voted in 2002 against a U.S. military invasion of Iraq, citing insufficient evidence that the country had weapons of mass destruction. He chaired the Congressional Black Caucus in 2003 and 2004.
Cummings was a staunch advocate for transit, which he viewed as crucial for providing a “better future” for Baltimoreans, especially those living in the city’s impoverished areas. The congressman urged Amtrak to move forward with the renovation of Baltimore’s Penn Station, which he said “should be an economic engine," and was a staunch supporter of the proposed Red Line, a planned east-west light rail project in Baltimore that Hogan canceled.
Cummings clashed with Trump and his administration over a number of issues, including the high cost of prescription drugs, a longtime concern of his. His committee engaged in a protracted court fight with the administration over subpoenas — challenged by the president — of Trump’s personal and financial records.
Cummings said he had just a single one-on-one conversation with the president. It was in 2017 when both were working on plans to lower drug prices.
The Democrat recalled saying: “Mr. President, you’re now 70-something, I’m 60-something. Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels. The thing that you and I need to do is figure out what we can do — what present can we bring to generations unborn?”
Cummings resented Trump’s tweet over the summer that four Democratic congresswomen of color — Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — should "go back” to other countries. He said it recalled the summer of 1962, when white mobs taunted and threw rocks and bottles at Cummings and other African American kids seeking to integrate the Riverside Park pool in South Baltimore.
“I don’t think these Republicans or Trump fully understand what it feels like to be treated like less than a dog,” Cummings told The Sun.
In July, Trump began a weeklong series of tweets and comments attacking the congressman, his hometown of Baltimore and his congressional district, which Trump called “rat and rodent infested.” Cummings chose not to respond directly, but in a National Press Club speech decried “racist language” used by the nation’s leaders and urged them to “work together for the common good.”
“God has called me to this moment. I did not ask for it,” he said in the speech.
In a tweet Thursday, Trump sent his “warmest condolences” to Cummings’ family and friends and said: “I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!”
Cummings was known for his booming — and sometimes intimidating — observations during committee hearings. He did not hesitate to tell witnesses when he thought they were dodging his pointed questions.
“I felt like you were trying to pull a fast one on me, I’ve got to be honest with you, man,” Cummings told U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in March during a hearing into how the Trump administration came to develop a census question — later withdrawn — about citizenship status. Ross said he had testified truthfully.
Cummings was born in 1951 and raised in Baltimore, where he continued to live. He was one of seven children of Robert Cummings Sr. and Ruth Elma Cummings, who were sharecroppers on land where their ancestors were enslaved. The couple moved to Baltimore in the late 1940s from South Carolina. Cummings often told a story of how his mother had witnessed Americans beaten while seeking the right to vote.
“Her last words were: ‘Do not let them take our votes away from us,' " he said.
As a child, Cummings struggled in elementary school and was assigned to special education courses; he wanted to be a lawyer, but a school counselor recommended trade school. However, after showing promise in high school at Baltimore City College, he won Phi Beta Kappa honors at Howard University in Washington. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and passed the state bar in 1976.
Cummings joined a small Baltimore law firm and later set up his own practice, pooling expenses with two other lawyers. He soon transitioned to his second aspiration as a public servant.
In 1982, with the support of several established city officials, Cummings ran for state delegate and won. He served in the General Assembly for 14 years and became the first African American in Maryland history to be named speaker pro tem of the House of Delegates.
In late 1995, Cummings decided to run in the 7th Congressional District after Kweisi Mfume announced he would resign to become the head of the national NAACP. The present district boundaries encompass parts of the city of Baltimore and sections of the counties of Baltimore and Howard.
“Common law and experience teach us that politics change people, but Elijah was a person who changed politics. He put a human face on it. He made it real,” Mfume said.
As he rose to political prominence, Cummings struggled with finances. For two winters as a congressman, he said, he lived without heat. He told The Sun in 1999 that was in part because he was helping to support three children: two daughters and a son.
His daughters graduated from Howard, Cummings’ alma mater. He posted a photo in 2016 in honor of his youngest’s graduation day, saying on Twitter: “I was so proud to watch my daughter, Adia, walk across the stage."
Jeff Barker is The Sun's Washington correspondent and a business of sports reporter. A University of Pennsylvania graduate, he formerly worked for AP and as the Arizona Republic’s Washington reporter. He has covered politics and Terps basketball and football for The Sun. He is co-director of a documentary on the development of baseball in China.