As a day of tributes to the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings drew to a close Wednesday night, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings ascended a stage to speak about her late husband.
One day before the congressman died, Rockeymoore Cummings said the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital wanted to give him some “sunshine therapy.” Cummings was too weak to get out of bed, so he was wheeled to the 14th-floor roof of the hospital, where helicopters land.
“He looked upon the Inner Harbor, and he looked upon south Baltimore where he grew up. He looked toward downtown and he looked to the west side, and it was so glorious,” Rockeymoore Cummings said. “He said: ‘Boy, I’ve come a long way.’ "
“And he has come a long way,” said Rockeymoore Cummings, her husband’s casket in front of her. "This was a great man. A man who has inspired so many. But he has been just as inspired by all of you who have poured so much into him.”
Rockeymoore Cummings’ remarks capped a day of celebrations in the congressman’s hometown of Baltimore — before Thursday’s honors at the U.S. Capitol and before President Barack Obama speaks at his funeral Friday.
The congressman, who had cancer and died last week at age 68, had wanted the people of Baltimore to have a chance to bid him farewell.
He got his wish Wednesday, lying in repose at Morgan State University, where he proudly served on the Board of Regents for 19 years until his death. More than two dozen politicians, ministers and community leaders closed the day with tributes to the Baltimore Democrat.
A color guard and members of the Morgan State ROTC escorted the casket Wednesday morning into the university’s Murphy Fine Arts Center, where a long line of constituents and admirers had formed outside the doors of the Gilliam Concert Hall more than an hour before the all-day viewing began.
Myrtle Webb, a retired principal of Hilton Elementary in Northwest Baltimore who now lives in Jessup, woke up at 5 a.m. to make sure she would be one of the first to arrive. She and a friend wore orange Morgan State alumni sweatshirts.
Webb remembered Cummings as much for his constituent service as for his towering presence in Maryland and national politics.
“If you wrote or called him, I don’t know how he did it, but he responded to everyone,” she said. “If you had a little gathering — coffee and doughnuts — he would come. I wouldn’t miss this today for nothing.”
The congressman was a champion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, especially in underprivileged schools, said Jonathan Wilson, director of the Science Engineering Mathematics and Aerospace Academy at Morgan State. Cummings helped allocate and maintain grants to strengthen students’ educations to make them more competitive for scholarships, internships and jobs, Wilson said.
“All of that is the fruit of the efforts by Congressman Cummings and Senator [Barbara] Mikulski in making sure funding is there for K-12 STEM education nationally,” he said.
Inside the hall during the day, Cummings lay in a navy blue suit in an open casket, accompanied by a folded American flag, two large bouquets and a uniformed ceremonial honor guard. Well-wishers moved past the late congressman and shook hands or hugged his widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, while a video played highlights from a handful of his most rousing speeches, blasting child detention centers at the Mexican border and the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.
Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young stood in line with the many Baltimoreans filing into the concert hall.
“Elijah was more than just an elected leader,” Young said. "He was a public servant. He was my friend.”
To Baltimore, Cummings was “a father figure, the protector, the defender,” said Diane Thornton, a retired social worker who lives in Morgan Park in Northeast Baltimore. Thornton, who is in her 60s, said she wasn’t going to let an arthritic knee stop her from waiting in line to bid farewell to the congressman.
“He wanted to provide for our city, the people, and enrich our lives,” she said. “I’ll stand here as long as it takes to pay my respects.”
Vivian Ballard, a retired city health department office manager who lives in Belair-Edison in East Baltimore, called him a “voice for the voiceless, for the underdog, not only in the city, but universally."
“He was speaking up on causes people wouldn’t always think about,” she said.
Janice Ray, 67, of Moravia-Walther in Northeast Baltimore, said she used to help out with Cummings’ political campaigns.
She first met Cummings while taking classes at the Community College of Baltimore City in the 1970s, and she said he taught her to take pride in her community.
“He was dependable, reliable, trustworthy, very trustworthy,” Ray said. “A man of his word.”
For the evening ceremony, hundreds of people filed into the building, where a lineup of two dozen political and community leaders took turns at a podium in front of the now-closed casket. They praised the late congressman as a public servant and champion for social justice.
Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat, recalled Cummings walking the streets of the city in 2015, amid rioting and unrest after the death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured in police custody.
“He brought about a calm," the former U.S. senator said. "It was the social glue that held Baltimore together. In bringing about calm, he did not ask people to give up their passion. He did not ask people to give up their anger.”
Instead, Mikulski said, Cummings encouraged them to channel their passion into change.
House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said even as Cummings was a chief investigator of Republican President Donald Trump, he never lost sight of the needs of his district and his city.
“Elijah Cummings was everything you’ll read and hear about him: a prolific speaker, a political giant, a civil rights advocate, but I’ll remember him as a friend and teacher," said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. "This is a great loss for our state and country. But we can take solace that his impact will last for generations.”
Cummings was comfortable with heads of state, but also with Baltimore residents, “inspiring, teaching and leading his community like only he could," said Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, a Democrat who counted the congressman as a political mentor.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who was speaker of the House of Delegates when Cummings was first elected as a state delegate, said the future congressman’s talent was spotted quickly. Cummings lived up to his promise, Cardin said.
“He devoted his entire life to making America better,” said Cardin, also a Democrat. “He advanced measures to improve education, to expand affordable housing, to curb addiction, to enhance public infrastructure, to promote gun safety, to reform police practices, and the list goes on and on.”
Several speakers mentioned Cummings’ key role in investigating President Donald Trump and the ongoing impeachment inquiry.
U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes said he was anxious about the loss of Cummings’ leadership on “the journey to reclaim our democracy.”
“I was wondering whether we could get there without him, whether we could finish that fight without him,” Sarbanes said. “Then I realized that Elijah would not have left us unless he thought we had the power to finish the fight without him. And we will finish that fight for Elijah Cummings.”
Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott recalled Cummings encouraging him to always respect others, even in the heat of political battles.
“'Brandon'," Scott said Cummings told him, "'one day your title will go away, but that dignity and respect you have for yourself and others will be with you forever.'”
Cummings followed his own advice, Scott said.
“The world watched him embody it as the president of the United States attacked him and all of us in Baltimore,” Scott said. “He handled that with an amount of dignity and calm we don’t always see from our public figures.”
On Thursday, the late congressman will be taken to Washington, where he will lie in state in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. An 11 a.m. arrival ceremony will be limited to members of Congress and Cummings’ relatives. But the public will be allowed, via the Capitol Visitor Center, to pay respects from 1 p.m. until 7 p.m.
A final viewing will be held before his funeral Friday at New Psalmist Baptist Church, his longtime church in Lochearn. That viewing is scheduled for 8 a.m., followed by the funeral at 10 a.m.