Elected Officials, Community Leaders, Constituents, Family and Friends Come Together to Celebrate a Life of Service
His world fame grew from his actions in the nation’s capital, but U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings wanted the world to know he was a son of Baltimore City. On Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, thousands of Baltimoreans took advantage of the opportunity that the late civil rights advocate, longtime representative of Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District and longtime Morgan State University (MSU) regent had given them to say their goodbyes. Following the arrangements the congressman had made with his family during his long bout with health challenges, Cummings’ body lay in repose for more than 12 hours at the Murphy Fine Arts Center on MSU’s campus: a public viewing was held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by special presentations from fraternal organizations for an hour and a tribute service for the public in the evening. Congressman Cummings died this past Oct. 17 at age 68.
The diversity of the crowd on hand to pay their respects during the viewing reflected Cummings’ true humanity and dedication to social justice and equal opportunity.
“I’m originally from McLean, Virginia, but I ended up coming to law school in Maryland, the University of Maryland School of Law, the same law school that Congressman Cummings attended (10 years earlier),” said attorney Ingrid Sampson. “Congressman Cummings was an outstanding attorney. He was like the gold standard about how to do your work and show integrity. I appreciated that he along with Billy Murphy, Mabel House Hubbard, Eddie Smith (and others) really broke a lot of barriers. I have a grateful heart to Congressman Cummings and those who were ahead of me.”
“Elijah is a figure in this community unlike any other,” said Baltimore businessman Wally D. Pinkard Jr. “In my lifetime, the only other I can think of (like him) is Pete Rawlings: men who transcended race, who had incredible values and who stood up for principles.” He and Cummings worked together on numerous projects in the community, said Pinkard, who holds a number of leadership positions including president of the France-Merrick Foundation. “He had so much energy. It’s amazing what he did in the last months of his life.”
Pauline Stewart, a native of Jamaica who has lived in Baltimore for 32 years, said she considered Cummings to be a brother and best friend. Stewart and her twin sister are aspiring entrepreneurs, and Cummings encouraged them to enroll in the Baltimore City Department of Public Works’ Small Business Development Program this year. The sisters graduated from the program at the Morgan Business Center in November 2018.
“We came here to work and do a good job for our America, and we love our congressman, Elijah Cummings,” Stewart said. “May his soul rest in peace.”
Morgan student Jeremiah Taylor is a sophomore civil engineering major from Baltimore City.
“The reason I came out today is to pay my respects to a man who made constant efforts to change Baltimore City, and he did a really good job during his time in politics,” Taylor said.
His parents also liked and respected Cummings, Taylor added, and his peers benefited from the congressman’s initiatives such as the Elijah Cummings Youth Program’s Israel Experience.
Nurtured by Challenge
Born in Baltimore City in 1951, Elijah E. Cummings was the third of seven children of Robert and Ruth Cummings, who came to the city from South Carolina, where they had worked as sharecroppers. Elijah grew up in a religious household during the de jure segregation of the 1950s and ’60s, as his mother followed her calling from domestic work to found a church.
In the public schools in the underserved neighborhoods where he lived, Elijah was relegated to “the third group” of students, what is now called special education. But defying expectations, he became a stellar academic achiever, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Howard University — where he served as student government president and graduated Phi Beta Kappa — and a J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law.
He was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1983, beginning his career of public service, and served there for 14 years, becoming the first African American to serve as the body’s speaker pro tempore. In 1996, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, taking the seat that had been held by Kweisi Mfume after Mfume had resigned to lead the NAACP.
Shaped by the values instilled by his upbringing, Cummings worked continuously during his 23 years in Congress to ensure that the next generation had access to quality healthcare and education, clean air and water and a strong economy defined by fiscal responsibility. At the time of his passing, he was chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and a senior member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Cummings was appointed to the MSU Board of Regents in July 1999 and served on the board for 19 years. He chaired the board’s Audit and Institutional Assessment Committee from February 2014 to June 2019 and was a member of its Academic and Student Affairs Committee.
‘Always for Others’
During the tribute service at Murphy Fine Arts Center, 27 speakers paid homage to the late congressman and regent, including elected officials, religious leaders, personal friends, and individuals who had collaborated with him in serving the community.
“He would investigate, legislate and agitate, but when he agitated it was never for himself. It was always for others,” said former Senator Barbara Mikulski, who served with Cummings for 17 years in the Maryland congressional delegation. “…He did not ask people to give up their anger. He talked to them in justice, discrimination, redlined, sidelined. What he did was to take all of that anger and passion and to channel it into bringing about change.”
The Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., D.Min., Ph.D., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church in Baltimore City, told of Cummings’ early leadership ability and their friendship that dated back to their junior high school and high school years.
“The word that best describes Elijah E. Cummings…is ‘precocious,’ ” Dr. Hathaway said, describing Cummings as a master teller of humorous stories to his peers, an effective lead advocate for fellow students who got in trouble with school administrators, and later president of his high school class. “…I want you to know that long before Elijah made famous the poem ‘We Only Have a Minute,’ he convinced the 1969 class of (Baltimore) City College (high school) to adopt these words as our theme song…and I believe the words of this song were his guiding principle throughout his life: ‘to dream the impossible dream.’ ”
“My first conversation with Elijah was over 40 years ago,” said Diane Bell McKoy, president and chief executive officer of Associated Black Charities. “We were talking about voter registration, and he was absolutely, the young Elijah, passionate about our collectively making a difference…. Well, little did I know that my last conversation with Elijah (this past March) would be eerily similar to my first,” she continued. “(He told me) how very serious things were in Washington, how people didn’t know how bad things were, how all of our efforts over the years were being undermined. He admonished me that people had to vote, that they had to understand how important, how critical it was that they vote, that they had to pay attention…. I certainly cannot provide you the gift of words that Elijah had, but I can passionately ask that you heed his words to me…. Let us not take this democracy for granted. Do something. Vote.”
MSU President David Wilson, Ed.D., spoke of meeting Cummings when Dr. Wilson was being interviewed by Morgan’s Board of Regents for his current job. He learned they were both sons of sharecroppers and shared some of the same values.
“He was so genuine. He was so authentic. He was so real. He didn’t get caught up in all the trappings, all the accoutrements of the position. He was a person who led with his heart. And I connected to him on that level,” Dr. Wilson said. Later, he said, during the unrest in Baltimore City in 2015, “I was so deeply moved as I would turn on the television each night, and I would see Congressman Cummings in the street, fighting every single night…. I will forever remember the tears that were welled in his eyes as he was fighting with all of his heart and all of his soul to restore peace to our great city of Baltimore.”
“…When I got the message that he had passed, I must admit that I felt, and still do, that a piece of the heart of Baltimore has passed, too,” Dr. Wilson said. “And I’m so encouraged with the last speakers because it showed that that heart is still in us, and he is leaving behind all of these possibilities. And for that, we are grateful as a city, and we will continue to build on his great legacy.”
Congressman Cummings’ funeral will be held on Friday, Oct. 25, in Baltimore, at New Psalmist Baptist Church, where he was an active member. He is survived by his widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Ph.D., and daughters, Jennifer J. Cummings and Adia Cummings.