Congress on Thursday bid goodbye to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the son of sharecroppers who rose to become one of the Democratic Party’s most influential figures at a tumultuous time in American politics.
The late Oversight Committee chairman — who represented his majority-black Baltimore district in the House for two decades — became the first African American lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol, an honor bestowed to only a few dozen statesmen, presidents and military leaders throughout U.S. history.
Thousands of visitors are expected to stream through the Capitol to pay their final respects to Cummings, who died Oct. 17 at age 68.
Cummings’ casket sat about 75 feet away from a statue of another civil rights icon, Rosa Parks, and just steps away from the bust of the former Confederate president Jefferson Davis — a reminder of Washington’s troubled history on race, which Cummings himself battled throughout his life.
Hundreds of lawmakers packed the hall on Thursday morning, watching stoically as the casket — draped in an American flag — was carried in.
The ceremony in the Capitol featured remarks from the highest-ranking members of Congress: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, as well as some of his many friends in the House.
Pelosi, a close ally of Cummings, delivered the first remarks, calling him "a master of the House."
"He did not just represent Baltimore. He embodied it," added McConnell, noting Cummings' unfailing commitment to his home city while adding that he had to "literally bear the injuries of bigotry" as he rose through the ranks.
One of the most powerful tributes came from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the nation's highest-ranking black official, who touted that he and Cummings' shared roots in South Carolina, where they both grew up as "PKs — preachers kids."
Clyburn said his father would frequently tell him, "The world would much rather see a sermon than hear one" — a phrase that Clyburn said he often shared with Cummings.
"Elijah's service was a soaring instructive sermon. And today, I have no doubt that he is dancing with the angels," Clyburn said, borrowing a familiar refrain of the Maryland Democrat.
Though he could be a fierce political fighter, Cummings also found friendship across the aisle.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, grew emotional as he spoke about his "unexpected friendship" with Cummings.
But he also made guests chuckle on Thursday, as he mentioned that Cummings had once quipped to Meadows that former Rep. Darrell Issa was "going to make him famous" amid their oversight brawls.
At that comment, lawmakers laughed and turned their heads to look for Issa, also a former Oversight chairman, who came to the Capitol for the ceremony. Other political heavyweights in attendance included former Speaker Paul Ryan, who sat just behind Rev. Al Sharpton, veteran Democrat and former Oversight Committee chairman Henry Waxman and MSNBC anchors Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
Sitting together in one corner was the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members wore colorful African stoles. After the ceremony, a group of about two dozen CBC members huddled around the casket for a prayer, with several members wiping away tears.
Ahead of the ceremony, top Democrats shared a video tribute of Cummings’ political career with the CBC — which Cummings once chaired — where emotions ran high, according to people in the room. The caucus also delivered their own tribute to him on Thursday through speeches on the House floor.
Cummings served as a champion for black Americans in Baltimore for decades. But lawmakers said he helped represent the black community across the country in the era of President Donald Trump.
Cummings repeatedly decried Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, even as he tried to forge policy deals with the president on issues like prescription drugs. He was forced into a more head-on conflict with Trump this summer, when the president called Baltimore a “rat and rodent infested mess” in a tweet and called out Cummings specifically to “help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”
Cummings was an enormously respected figure, and though his health was poor during the past two years, he was a key figure in Democrats’ sweeping investigations into the Trump administration. His oversight role took on greater urgency as Democrats formally moved into an impeachment inquiry this fall, and leaves behind a struggle to replace him as chairman.
In his final weeks, the Oversight chairman spoke on a near-daily basis to his fellow chairmen and staff about the ongoing investigation. Just days before he died, Cummings spoke on a conference call to brief the Democratic Caucus on the Ukraine investigation.
“We don’t know what the IG is going to say, but whatever they say, it will be significant,” Cummings told Democrats on a private caucus call on Oct. 2, as the caucus ramped up its probe into whether Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens.
The funeral on Friday, which will be held at his home church in Baltimore, is also expected to draw thousands. Speakers include former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, as well as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pelosi.
In Washington, Cummings is the first lawmaker to lie in state since the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in August 2018. He will make history as just the third African American to receive the same honor, following Parks in 2013, and the first elected official to do so.
“It shows the growth and development of the body politic in Washington,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said, adding that he became “fast friends” with Cummings even before he arrived in Congress more than a decade ago.
“He was just a good human being,” said Cleaver, a preacher-turned-congressman who delivered the invocation and benediction at Thursday’s ceremony. “And I don’t know if he is immediately replaceable.”