Elijah Cummings (1951-2019)

Rep. Elijah Cummings in his Washington, DC office. Photo credit: Baltimore Sun

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a stalwart defender of civil rights and longtime advocate for Baltimore, passes away at the age of 68.

U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, succumbed to a quiet, longtime battle with cancer on Thursday, October 17, 2019 at Gilchrist Hospice Care at  Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore surrounded by family and close friends. He was 68. 

A son of sharecroppers, Elijah Eugene Cummings was born on January 18, 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland as the third of seven children. He attended public schools in Baltimore, graduating from Baltimore City College High School in 1969. 

Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore and president of the University of Baltimore, befriended Cummings during their high school years at Baltimore City College High School. 

“Congressman Cummings and I were great friends since our days at Baltimore City College High School,” attested Schmoke. “He was the exemplar of what it means to be a public servant. The country will remember him as a great protector of our democracy.”

After graduating from high school, Cummings earned his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Howard University in 1973. While at Howard, he was active in student government and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. In 1976, he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law with his Juris Doctor and was quickly admitted to the Maryland State Bar Association. He practiced law for 19 years before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996.

In 1983, Cummings was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. While in Annapolis, he became chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and was the first African-American elected Speaker Pro-Tempore, the second highest position in the House of Delegates. 

In 1996, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served until his passing. A former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, he was remembered by many as a staunch supporter of civil rights. 

Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan praised Cummings as a “fierce advocate for civil rights and for Maryland for more than three decades. Congressman Cummings leaves behind an incredible legacy of fighting for Baltimore City and working to improve people’s lives.” 

Congressman Cummings championed progressive causes, such as marriage equality, universal health care, and environmental protections, but was also a huge proponent of transportation issues that he believed would positively impact Baltimore. Cummings was a vocal supporter of the proposed Red Line, which was later cancelled by Gov. Hogan, and pressured Amtrak to renovate Baltimore Penn Station calling the finished product, “an economic machine”. 

Rep. Elijah Cummings not only had a lasting relationship with his hometown, but also its flagship university, the University of Baltimore. In January 2004, he served as the university’s commencement Speaker and returned in 2010 as the Keynote Speaker for the School of Law’s Urban Child Symposium. He was honored by the university’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy in 2015 with the William Donald Schaefer Award. For many years, he hosted numerous informational events for constituents on campus, making frequent visits to the university. 

In his last few months in office, Rep. Cummings played a critical role in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Cummings worked to subpoena administration officials that he and other Democrats believed to be critical sources for any wrongdoing.  

In July, President Trump bombarded Rep. Cummings with tweets declaring that Cummings failed his constituents, referring to Baltimore as “rat and rodent infested”. 

In an interview with NPR, Rep. Cummings denounced Trump’s rhetoric, “We must also stop the hateful, incendiary comments. We’ve got to do it. Those in [the] highest levels of government must stop invoking fear, using racist language, and encouraging reprehensible behavior.” Later, he invited the president to Baltimore.

The clock is ticking for Governor Larry Hogan, who must announce by October 28 the dates for a primary and general election to fill the vacancy in the 7th Congressional District. The majority African American district encompasses over half of Baltimore City, most of Howard County, and large parts of Baltimore County. It is speculated that the congressman’s wife ,Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, current chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, is considering a run to fill the vacancy.

A public viewing is scheduled at Morgan State University’s Murphy Fine Arts Center on Wednesday, October 23 from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. immediately followed by a community-wide celebration of life.  

On Thursday, October 24,  a formal ceremony for members of Congress, his family, and invited guests will be held in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. Following the ceremony, he will lie in state. 

Funeral services will be held on Friday, October 25 at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. A wake with a public viewing begins at 8 A.M. with the funeral service beginning at 10 A.M. 

Cummings is survived by his wife and three children. 

Onai Charles is managing editor of the UB Post.

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