WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of Congress bid a tearful farewell Thursday 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 Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and a passion for legislating 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 Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, whose bond with the 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’ 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 Committee — or zipping by on his scooter between votes. On Thursday, his casket rested in National Statuary Hall for the service and was later moved to a passage directly in front of the House chamber. The doors were pinned open in his honor as the public filed past.
The chairmanship gave Cummings a sizable role the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. The two tangled last summer when the president suggested Cummings pay more attention to Baltimore than investigations.
He never left, friends and family recalled Thursday, even as he tended to official duties in Washington.
Another child of Baltimore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., remembered the man she’s called “sweet Elijah” and said Cummings had been the “North Star” for the Democrats he served alongside.
“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.
Later in the services, the Morgan State University Choir sang, “If I Can Help Somebody” from the balcony overhead.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recalled Cummings’ efforts to calm his native Baltimore amid violent 2015 protests following the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody.
Cummings’ involvement in the movement, taking to the streets with a bullhorn, helped quiet the disturbances.
“He didn’t just represent Baltimore. He embodied it,” McConnell said. By day, Cummings was at the Capitol in the halls of power, McConnell said, but at night he returned to Baltimore to encourage unity.
“Let’s go home. Let’s all go home,” McConnell recalled Cummings saying at the time. “Now our distinguished colleague truly has gone home.”
Majority Whip James Clyburn recalled connecting with Cummings over their shared roots as “PKs” — preachers’ kids — who followed their own paths to the House rather than their fathers’ into the ministry.
Nonetheless, Clyburn said, “Elijah’s service was a soaring, instructive sermon” on justice and fairness.
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.
“As Elijah begins his hallelujah dance with the angels, may we look at his life and his work as dance lessons for our future entry into the silent halls of death,” Hoyer said.
“Our country,” Schumer said, “has lost a giant.”