WASHINGTON—Members of Congress bid a tearful farewell Oct. 24 to Rep. Elijah Cummings, hailing the son of sharecroppers as a “master of the House” as the Maryland Democrat became the first African American lawmaker to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol.
Lawmakers eulogized Cummings as a mentor and close friend, with a voice that could “shake mountains,” in the words of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and a passion for justice and his hometown of Baltimore.
“He had a smile that would consume his whole face. But he also had eyes that would pierce through anybody that was standing in his way,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), whose bond with Cummings was among Congress’s most surprising friendships.
“Perhaps this place and this country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships,” Meadows added, growing emotional. “I know I’ve been blessed by one.”
Cummings’s death at 68 on Oct. 17 stunned and saddened many on Capitol Hill accustomed to seeing him with the gavel as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee—or zipping by on his scooter between votes. On Oct. 24, his casket rested in National Statuary Hall for the service and was later moved to a passage directly in front of the House chamber, where he served for 23 years. The doors were pinned open in his honor as the public filed past.
Cummings never left Baltimore, friends, and family recalled Oct. 24, even as he tended to official duties in Washington.
Another child of Baltimore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), remembered the man she called “sweet Elijah,” saying Cummings had been the “North Star” for the Democrats he served alongside.
“Elijah was truly a master of the House. He respected its history, and in it, he helped shape America’s future,” Pelosi said.
“He was also the mentor of the House,” she told the friends and loved ones assembled among the statues in the gilded, semicircular room.
Last year, when leaders assigned members to committees, Cummings said, “‘Give me as many freshmen as you can. I love their potential and I want to help them realize it,” Pelosi recalled.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Cummings was respected and revered in the caucus, “a quiet giant” whose words were heeded.
“He pulled no punches. He was authentic to the core and a champion of our democracy,” Bass said.
Later in the service, the Morgan State University Choir sang, “If I Can Help Somebody” from the balcony overhead.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), recalled Cummings’s efforts to calm his native Baltimore amid violent 2015 protests following the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody.
By day, Cummings was at the Capitol in the halls of power, McConnell said, but at night, he returned to Baltimore to encourage unity. Taking to the streets with a bullhorn, Cummings helped quiet the disturbances.
“Let’s go home. Let’s all go home,” McConnell recalled Cummings saying at the time. “Now, our distinguished colleague truly has gone home.”
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) recalled connecting with Cummings over their shared roots as “PKs” — preachers’ kids — who followed their own paths to Congress rather than their fathers’ into the ministry.
Nonetheless, Clyburn said, “Elijah’s service was a soaring, instructive sermon” on justice and fairness. Cummings frequently urged colleagues to think about how their actions would affect children, and he was an outspoken critic of Trump administration policies that separated children from their families at the border.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), recalled that during the 2015 Baltimore protests, Cummings was “a calming influence in a sea of rage.”
Hoyer and other speakers remembered a frequent Cummings lament when events went awry or politicians acted badly: “We are better than this,” Cummings would thunder in his baritone.
“Our country,” Schumer said, “has lost a giant.”