Two former presidents, congressional colleagues and thousands of residents of his beloved Baltimore said goodbye to U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings at his longtime church Friday in a poignant service that was also a resounding appreciation of the city and a congressman who overcame adversity.
The funeral — attended by former Democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — was at times buoyant as about 4,000 mourners thundered applause for Cummings, the marquee speakers and mentions of Baltimore.
His widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, thanked the attendees at New Psalmist Baptist Church for their support of her husband, who she said struggled with physical and emotional pain.
She said the Democratic congressman, who had cancer and other ailments, was stung by political attacks. Cummings, 68, was the focus of criticism by Republican President Donald Trump and his supporters this year as he intensified his pursuit of documents and testimony to investigate Trump’s administration.
She said she was determined to see him receive his due, in part with a ceremony Thursday in which he lay in state at the U.S. Capitol.
“They were trying to tear him down," Rockeymoore Cummings said. "And we needed to make sure that he went out with the respect and the dignity that he deserved. He was a man of utmost integrity. Do you hear me?”
Obama, the first African American president, sat in the front row.
“President Obama, he was so proud,” Rockeymoore Cummings said, and Obama bowed his head and closed his eyes.
Rockeymoore Cummings, who is chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, told Obama that her husband was one of his chief defenders, but “you didn’t have any challenges like what we have going on now.”
She said Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of the key committees pursuing an impeachment inquiry of Trump, had to “fight, for the soul of our democracy, the very real corruption.”
His widow also referred indirectly to Trump’s weeklong series of attacks on Cummings and Baltimore this summer, when the president called the city rat-infested and corrupt.
“He sustained personal attacks — and attacks on our beloved city,” she said. She said he carried himself “with grace and dignity in all public forums. But it hurt him.”
During a speech Friday in South Carolina, Trump sent regards to Cummings’ family and friends at the funeral. The president said he had seen Cummings’ “passion” for lowering prescription drug prices — an issue the two met about early in Trump’s presidency.
Cummings disappeared from public view in mid-September, missing votes in the House and committee meetings, and died Oct. 17 after a rapid decline. But he had a series of health problems in recent years, including an heart valve replacement in 2017 and a later knee infection. He used a wheelchair to get around and a walker while giving remarks.
At the funeral, his widow said he faced a serious health challenge even earlier.
"Do you know that he was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness more than 25 years ago?” Rockeymoore Cummings said. A spokeswoman for Cummings, Trudy Perkins, said she didn’t have any information on the disease.
Harry Spikes, a Cummings staff member who served as his driver during the past several years, said as he drove his mentor to speaking engagements, the congressman was always in pain. But when he stood before audiences — especially children — “it was as if he had discovered a cure to his pain.”
“If he were here, he’d say, ‘Remember to be greater than your pain. If one leg doesn’t work, use a walker. At least you’ll be standing,' " Spikes said.
Obama told the congregation of Cummings: “His life validates the things we tell people about what’s possible in this country — not guaranteed, but possible.”
In 2007, Cummings was an early endorser of Obama’s first presidential bid, even as many members of Congress backed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Obama said Cummings’ parents, Robert Cummings Sr. and Ruth Cummings, passed on strength and grit, but also kindness and faith to their son. Like Rockeymoore Cummings, Obama didn’t mention Trump, but seemed to be referring to him when he talked about the character of “all kinds of people who get elected.”
“There’s nothing weak about kindness and compassion,” Obama said. “There’s nothing weak about looking out for others. There’s nothing weak about being honorable. You’re not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect.”
Obama turned away from the podium to look at a display on a screen behind him that called the late lawmaker “The Honorable Congressman Elijah E. Cummings.”
“This is a title that we confer on all kinds of people who get elected to public office. We’re supposed to introduce them as ‘Honorable,’ " Obama said. "But Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office. There’s a difference. There’s a difference if you were honorable and treated others honorably outside the limelight.”
Hillary Clinton, Obama’s secretary of state, and Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also spoke, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts read the 23rd Psalm.
Also attending were former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Democratic U.S. representatives John Lewis of Georgia and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Warren, Biden, Harris and Klobuchar are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
Cummings was first elected in 1996 to represent Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. It includes parts of the city of Baltimore and areas of both Baltimore and Howard counties.
Hogan is expected to announce Monday the dates for special primary and general election to replace Cummings, according to Mike Ricci, the governor’s spokesman.
Hillary Clinton kicked off Friday’s celebration of praise and remembrance, getting a full round of applause as she was introduced — one of many ovations on a day when tears blended with cheers.
“It is no coincidence, is it, that Elijah Cummings shared a name with an Old Testament prophet?” she said. “Like the prophet, our Elijah could call down fire from heaven. But he also prayed and worked for healing.”
Without mentioning any elected leaders by name, Hillary Clinton said: “The American people want to live their lives without fear of their leaders.”
Former Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who held the 7th District seat before Cummings, celebrated his legacy and his dream of civil rights for every American. He remembered Cummings as the son of sharecroppers from South Carolina.
“He was the 20th-century manifestation of a race of people who had suffered, endured and survived three centuries of slavery, oppression, deprivation, degradation, denial and disprivilege," Mfume said.
Mfume asked his listeners to recommit to that dream, “the dream of all those nameless and faceless sharecroppers of his father’s generation, who laid their bodies down, on plantations all over this country, so that young Elijahs could run across them and get to the promised land.”
Bishop Walter S. Thomas Sr. of New Psalmist, Cummings’ pastor of nearly 40 years, said that in “his last official act for God,” Cummings did something different from speaking truth to power.
“Elijah’s last official act for the kingdom of God was to bring power to church,” said Thomas, looking out at the national, state and local leaders gathered in the sanctuary. Thomas said Cummings wanted people in power to know what he found in church, and had told the bishop, “In church, I can recognize my failures and claim my possibilities.”
Thomas also said Cummings “criticized what was not right in America.”
“He spoke for those who had no voice,” Thomas said. “Why? Because he grew up having no voice.”
Both Thomas and Hillary Clinton emphasized Friday’s funeral was a more intimate “homegoing” for Cummings as a Baltimore churchman, compared with Thursday’s event in Washington that recognized him as a legislator and national leader. Hillary Clinton referred repeatedly to Cummings as “Our Elijah” and called him “a great man, a moral leader and a friend.”
Several speakers said they bonded with Cummings over chats about the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles, and one of his daughters, Jennifer Cummings, talked about giving him Christmas gifts of shirts from the Baltimore brand Under Armour.
She also recalled eating ice cream with her dad, watching murder mysteries with him, receiving his bear hugs and applauding him on his successful television appearances.
“He insisted on buying me brown dolls that looked like me,” Jennifer Cummings added. “Thank you for teaching me the true power of my beauty and brilliance.”
The service, which was shown on local television stations, aired on the radio and was carried by C-SPAN, lasted four hours — twice as long as scheduled.
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Early in the day, the mood seemed quietly celebratory as, one by one, Cummings’ supporters, friends, constituents and distant admirers came together out of the gloom. People showed up in chilly weather more than three hours before officials would let them inside.
Many described deeply personal connections with Cummings, whether through knowing him or being familiar with his work in the community.
Karen Thompson-Braden wore a black hat emblazoned with the logo of Delta Sigma Theta, her college sorority. She knew Cummings for years through her work as president of the Grove Park Improvement Association. She remembered how he was not only “instrumental” in the group’s work but also intervened when an elementary school teacher in her part of the city was reported to be treating minority students unfairly. He managed to get some of the children transferred to a different class, she said.
She often had the chance to meet with him and joked with him about all the Baltimore issues he had yet to solve, she said.
When a police motorcade arrived, lights flashing, with the hearse bearing Cummings’ body following behind, she edged closer to the curb to get a better view. When the hearse parked, and a light from inside it illuminated his flag-draped coffin, she grew emotional.
“This makes it so real,” she said. “I won’t be able to kid or joke with Elijah any more.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Jonathan M. Pitts and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.