Rep. Elijah Cummings rose from segregated childhood to powerful political voice in Baltimore, Washington

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.

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