BALTIMORE — The city of Baltimore, joined by the leading luminaries of the Democratic Party, said goodbye Friday to the late Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsFormer GOP congressional candidate Kimberly Klacik suing Candace Owens for defamation Former Cummings staffer unveils congressional bid McCarthy, GOP face a delicate dance on Jan. 6 committee MORE, a towering native son who ascended from the impoverished streets of Charm City to the highest echelons of Congress.
In a three-hour service at Baltimore's New Psalmist Baptist Church, where thousands of mourners lined up well before dawn to ensure a coveted seat, a long list of preeminent Democrats, friends and family members praised Cummings as a dogged defender of constitutional justice and an earnest warrior for the powerless and disadvantaged.
What emerged was a portrait of a larger-than-life lawyer, lawmaker and civil-rights trailblazer who rose from poverty in south Baltimore to become chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Reform Committee — a perch from which he played a central role in the Democrats' hard-charging impeachment inquiry into President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE. He was, by all accounts, an iron-willed figure who led by example; bore no tolerance for intolerance; and possessed a moral compass, they said, that always seemed to point north.
"From the state house to the House of Representatives, his commitment to justice and the rights of others would never ever waiver," said former President Obama. "[He was] a public servant who toiled to guarantee the least of us have the same opportunities that he had earned.
"His life validates the things we tell ourselves about what's possible in this country — not guaranteed, but possible."
Former President Clinton was also in attendance, hailing Cummings as the consummate American Dream story who used his legal and political powers to defend countless people — "many of whom were voiceless and weak and will probably never be known." Clinton also noted Cummings's capacity — mentioned frequently in the week since his death — to forge relationships across the aisle even amid the most rancorous partisan fights.
"He did it because everybody could see he was the real deal. ... His heart was in it," Clinton said. "And I think he did it because no matter how hard he fought and how passionately he argued, he tried to treat everybody the way he wanted to be treated."
Obama and Clinton capped the list of speakers to pay tribute to Cummings on Friday — a list that also included Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response GOP rep leaves committee assignments after indictment Under pressure, Democrats cut back spending MORE (D-Calif.), former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Hill: Trump reelection would spur 'one constitutional crisis after another' Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money — Democrats eye tough choices as deadline looms Under pressure, Democrats cut back spending Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program MORE (D-Mass.), a 2020 presidential contender who delivered one of the psalm readings. Also in attendance were former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden White House: US has donated 200 million COVID-19 vaccines around the world Police recommend charges against four over Sinema bathroom protest K Street revenues boom MORE and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisMcAuliffe rolls out ad featuring Obama ahead of campaign stop McAuliffe, Youngkin tied less than two weeks out from Virginia's Election Day: poll Are supply chain disruptions the beginning of the end of globalization? MORE (D-Calif.), who are also vying for the Democratic nomination; Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R); and scores of House lawmakers from both parties.
And while the dignitaries had the stage, the ceremony belonged to the people of Baltimore who flocked to the 4,000-seat church in the early hours of Friday morning for the chance to pay homage to a 12-term institution who had lived in the same inner-city house for more than three decades. When the doors opened for the 8 a.m. open-casket viewing, thousands of mourners had formed a line that folded across the large, adjacent parking lot six times over.
"The line did some things I never thought a line could do," said one of the ushers directing foot traffic outside the massive church.
Beverly Scott-Baker, 66, a registered nurse and Baltimore native, was among those who braved the crowd. Her goddaughter had needed help years ago, Scott-Baker said, and Cummings provided it without hesitation.
"He came and stepped in and assisted with the issue. And to this very day — she's 49 — and her life has changed completely," she said. "I'm ever-so-grateful, for just his kindness that he showed to everybody, regardless of race, color, political influence — just his complete humanitarianism."
Cummings, 68, died on Oct. 17 after a lengthy illness that had hobbled him physically but did little to hamper the tenacity and work ethic for which he was well known. Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHouse GOP leaders urge 'no' vote on Bannon contempt Cheney presses Republicans to back Bannon contempt vote GOP's embrace of Trump's false claims creates new perils MORE (R-Ohio), who played Cummings's foil as the senior Republican on the Oversight Committee, said he was in contact with Cummings about the panel's business until his last days. And Pelosi said she was in daily contact with Cummings on her cellphone, even as he was in hospice care in Baltimore. His last vote was on Sept. 11.
"He always appealed to our better angels, and to the promise of America — a calling us to live up to our principles and for a higher purpose," Pelosi told Friday's assembly.
The son of sharecroppers, Cummings was born in Baltimore in 1951, received a bachelor's degree from Howard University in Washington and a law degree from the University of Maryland. Loyal to both, Cummings told one of his daughters, Jennifer, that no matter where she decided to go to school, "his tuition checks were going to Howard."
Cummings served for 14 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, beginning in the early 1980s, and rose to become the first African American Speaker Pro Tempore in the state's history. In 1996, he was elected to Congress for the first time, filling the seat vacated by Kweisi Mfume, who retired that year to take the helm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Mfume, who turned 71 on Thursday, characterized Cummings as an "indefatigable spirit" who could be both "provocative and evocative." The pair spoke frequently, he said, about work and family and life and death. Cummings, on the last topic, had given Mfume some tongue-in-cheek advice.
"He said to me, 'Now if you go before I go, don't get up there and wing it, Kweisi,'" said Mfume, who now chairs the board of Baltimore's Morgan State University. "He said, 'Write it down!'"
Cummings's reputation as a tough but fair pugilist was not overlooked by the party brass.
In 2010, he hopped over a more senior member, former Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), to become the Oversight Committee’s senior Democrat — a move blessed by the party’s leaders, who wanted a figure with Cummings’s combativeness to go toe-to-toe with now-former Chairman Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaHow lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation Dozens of Sacramento students remain in Afghanistan after US pullout, district says Seven San Diego-area families evacuated from Afghanistan after summer trip abroad MORE (R-Calif.) in defense of Obama.
In 2014, Pelosi tapped Cummings to be the top Democrat on the Benghazi Committee, which was created by Republicans to investigate Hillary Clinton's role in the deadly 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya.
"Sec. Clinton — oh my goodness," Cummings's' widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, said Friday. "He spent many an hour defending you!"
That work had not gone unnoticed. Moments earlier, Clinton had eulogized Cummings as "a moral leader" and "a fierce champion of truth, justice and kindness."
"He led from his soul," she said.
Friday's funeral capped a week of services for Cummings, who on Thursday had been honored in a bipartisan ceremony on Capitol Hill — the first African American in the nation's history to lie in state in the Capitol building.
As some show of Cummings's bipartisan bonafides, several Republicans had also made the journey from Washington on Friday to attend the funeral service, including Jordan, Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertHouse passes bill to end crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Security forces under pressure to prevent repeat of Jan. 6 MORE (R-Texas), a conservative firebrand, and Rep. Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsMeadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Altria - White House tackles how to vaccinate children ages 5+ Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE (R-N.C.), the former chairman of the Freedom Caucus and close friend of Cummings who had delivered one of the eulogies in the Capitol a day earlier.
While Cummings's death has induced a rare bit of civility in a Congress engaging in partisan warfare over Trump's impeachment inquiry, there were several partisan shots fired during Friday's ceremony. Hillary Clinton compared Cummings to Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, who had "stood against corrupt leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel" — a subtle dig at Trump, who's facing a host of corruption allegations.
Still, most of the memorial stayed focused on Cummings's strengths, which seemed to transcend parties in ways few lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been able to achieve.
Obama said he tells his daughters that strong men can also be kind — in the model of Cummings.
"There's nothing weak about looking out for others," he said.
And Pelosi noted that when Democrats took control of the House earlier this year, Cummings had asked her to send him "as many freshmen as you can," so he could mentor them. She gave him six.
"Mentor, master of the House, North Star," Pelosi said. "May he rest in peace, Elijah Cummings."