WASHINGTON – Carried by Armed Forces body bearers, the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’s flag-draped casket ascended the steps of the United States Capitol Thursday morning and was placed on a catafalque in National Statuary Hall, where he became the first black elected official to lie in state there.
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings stood at the entrance as the soldiers, sailors and Marines brought her husband’s body into the historic former House chamber where Abraham Lincoln once served. Her right hand covered her heart as she struggled to hold back tears.
The 12-term Democratic representative from Maryland’s 7th Congressional District was honored in an emotional memorial service, surrounded by hundreds of colleagues, family and friends.
“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-North Carolina, a close friend of Cummings from across the political aisle.
The nation was startled by Cummings’ sudden death Oct. 17 at age 68. He served Baltimore for 23 years, and had been chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee since Democrats assumed the House majority in January.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, were among the speakers who remembered Cummings for his moral fortitude, commitment to civil rights and his powerful yet understated leadership style.
“It was in defense of children at the border that Elijah said, ‘We can do better,’” Pelosi said, recalling a committee hearing in July where Cummings grilled an official over the Trump administration’s family separation policy.
Pelosi also extolled Cummings for his dedication to mentoring new members of Congress.
She recalled him saying, “‘Give me as many freshmen as you can. I love their potential, and I want to help them realize it.’”
Ebony Majette, 28, a congressional staffer who attended the public visitation after the tribute, said she wouldn’t be in her current job if not for Cummings.
“The footprints that he has left for African Americans are monumental,” Majette said. “His journey has definitely started a journey for myself.”
Several speakers saluted Cummings’ commitment to Baltimore, where he was born in 1951 and lived for most of his life.
“There are some people who come to Washington because they are ambitious to leave their hometowns,” McConnell said. “And then there are some people who want to come to Washington precisely because they will never leave their hometowns behind.” Cummings, he said, was the latter.
McConnell remembered how, amid the uprising that followed Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in Baltimore, Cummings would execute his legislative duties in Washington by day before taking a train to Baltimore at night, marching with the constituents of his fraught city.
“He never lost sight of where he came from, or where he wanted our country to go,” McConnell said. “(He) has gone home – home to his Father’s house.”
Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called Cummings “respected, revered and viewed as a quiet giant within the caucus.”
Only two other black individuals have lain in honor in the Capitol. Neither were members of government: civil rights activist Rosa Parks, and U.S. Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut, who was killed on duty.
Cummings’s death came amid the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, where the lawmaker played a vital role as chair of the oversight panel. His position is temporarily being filled by his second-in-line, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York.
In a political environment rife with tension, political leaders said they will especially miss the late representative’s strong moral compass, which gained him bipartisan respect.
At the public visitation, lines wound through the first floor of the Capitol to Statuary Hall on the second floor, as congressional staff, other government workers, residents of the area and out-of-town visitors lined up in droves.
A former aide to Rep. Cummings, Kamau Marshall, 32, called him his “congressional father.”
He reflected on the congressman’s legacy as he scanned the long lines of people waiting to say their goodbyes.
“He was very iconic in his own way, and the impact is global – I think bigger than he would have expected it to be,” Marshall said.
Tyna Hepburn, 56, was moved by the turnout. “It’s awesome, and I expected this,” said the Washington resident and Library of Congress employee. The loss felt as monumental to her as the death of “somebody like Martin Luther King,” she said.
The congressman’s funeral will be held Friday morning at the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, where Cummings worshiped for nearly 40 years. Former President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are among those scheduled to speak.
Mourners attended a public viewing and commemoration at Baltimore’s historically-black Morgan State University Wednesday night.
“Elijah’s service was a soaring, instructive sermon,” said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-South Carolina. “And today, I have no doubt that he is dancing with the angels.”