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Baltimore Mourns Loss of Elijah Cummings, A Lifelong City Advocate

AP PHOTO Julio cortez

Elijah Cummings’ hometown of Baltimore is mourning.

The 12-term congressman, who passed away in the early hours of Oct. 17, was one of the earliest black leaders in Baltimore to achieve national standing.

“Before there was Barack Obama, for us here in Baltimore, we had Congressman Elijah Cummings,” said City Council President Brandon Scott.

The 35-year-old said growing up with a person like Cummings at the helm of Baltimore and Maryland politics inspired his generation of Baltimoreans. 

“All of us have had him come to our school give and deliver some inspirational speech and spend time talking to us,” he said. When Scott entered his first political office as a city council member, Cummings mentored and encouraged him. 

“When people ask me why I still live here… it’s because I grew up watching Congressman Cummings,” Scott said.

Cummings, who was 68, was the son of sharecroppers descended from slaves who moved their family to Baltimore to pursue a better life. He graduated from Baltimore City College high school in 1969 and earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Howard University. He studied law at the University of Maryland and practiced as an attorney throughout the state. 

Cummings, a Democrat, began his career in public office in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he served for 14 years. There, he became the first black person in state history to be named speaker pro tem. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996 and became a highly visible national leader, often advocating for civil rights and equality. 

Cummings lived in north Baltimore’s Madison Park neighborhood, returning every night from Washington. He was a member of the New Psalmist Baptist Church. As obituaries and memories of Cummings rolled out on Thursday, many remembered him as a man of God.

His pastor, Bishop Walter Scott Thomas, said Cummings and wife Maya Rockeymoore Cummings sat in the same spot every Sunday, like clockwork. 

“He was the honorable Congressman Elijah Cummings from the 7th Congressional District. But he was also brother Elijah Cummings,” he said. “He was the one who stood and spoke for them week after week, day after day in Congress, in other places. But on Sunday morning, he sat right beside them drinking from the same well.”

Thomas would text Cummings whenever he saw the congressman on television. He’d always text right back, “because that’s just the kind of man he is.”

Thomas remembers trying to quell disruption with Cummings during the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.

“We walked arm in arm during the disturbances in Baltimore on that Monday night after the funeral of Freddie Gray,” he said. “We're walking lock step down North Avenue trying to make sure there is no violence and no disruption. The memories just roll on and on.”

State Senator Jill Carter, a progressive Democrat who represents West Baltimore, laughed when she remembered her first meeting with Cummings. She taught a street law clinic as a law school student, and asked Cummings, then a state delegate, to speak to her class. 

“He was super dynamic,” she said. “He was probably one of the greatest orators of all time.”

The two developed a relationship, and Carter campaigned for him in the special state election to replace Kweisi Mfume as 7th district congressman. 

“A staple in the community and almost a family member is gone,” Carter said. “We knew that he was ill, but I don't believe any of us really thought that he would be gone this soon — especially since we were looking forward to the days ahead as he began to continue to take on Trump in the impeachment proceedings."

Adrienne Jones, the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, knew Cummings for decades. She remembers him as a champion for each of his constituents.

"He saw that there was something good in you and he would help," she said. "He would help you. He didn't look at titles. he just wanted to make sure that all parts of the district got the attention that they deserved."

Credit AP/Patrick Semansky
Elijah Cummings and Dr. Leana Wen sit on a healthcare panel alongside former President Bill Clinton.

Dr. Leana Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University and a former Health Commissioner of Baltimore and former president of Planned Parenthood, named her son after Cummings, a mentor of hers.

“We wanted Eli to grow up to be like his namesake, to be a tireless fighter who more than anything has a big heart and compassion and love for everyone,” she said.

When she arrived in Baltimore to serve as health commissioner, Wen didn’t personally know Cummings — but he soon became the person she called for help when she needed it, “whether it was for his help on personal matters and to help me navigate some really challenging times both in Baltimore and with my last role at Planned Parenthood.” 

Cummings was instrumental in the city recognizing and treating addiction as a disease, as well as acknowledging the problem of childhood trauma, Wen said.

“He always reminded us about why it is that we're doing this work,” she said. “That it's not what we're fighting about but who we're fighting for.”

Delegate Talmadge Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat and the House Majority Whip, knew Cummings for more than four decades, ever since he was a powerful voice in the House of Delegates.

“On the House floor, on many occasions, we would look for his opinion and we would look for him to take the lead on a lot of the debate,” he said, “because he had the passion and because he was a great orator and he could sway votes on the floor by his persuasion.” 

Branch and Cummings were close friends. After Cummings lost his nephew in a shooting and Branch lost his grandson, the two leaned on each other.

“He was just a giant of a guy, a great guy, a person that really had deep feelings about his constituency and his family,” he said.  

Mayor Jack Young called Cummings “one of the strongest and most gifted crusaders for social justice.”

“He was, put simply, a man of God who never forgot his duty to fight for the rights and dignity of the marginalized and often forgotten,” he said. 

Cummings leaves behind his wife Maya Rockeymoore Cummings and two daughters and a son.

Those WYPR spoke to said that no remembrance of Cummings will truly do him justice. But, some said, remembering him by standing strong in your own convictions will. 

Funeral plans were incomplete as of Thursday evening. 

WYPR’s Rachel Baye contributed to this report.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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