Members of Congress bid farewell to a giant

The Honorable Elijah Cummings lying in state. He is the first Black elected official ever granted this honor. (Photo Screen Shot)

( — How do you bid farewell to a giant? That was the Herculean task congressional lawmakers faced on October 24, when they gathered in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall to honor Congressman Elijah Cummings, who had died exactly a week ago at age 68. He represented Maryland’s 7th district for 23 years and at his death was the chairman of the powerful Oversight and Reform.

It was a send-off fit for a president, and indeed, the Maryland lawmaker’s casket was placed atop the same catafalque that held Abraham Lincoln’s casket in 1865. Cummings is the third African American to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol and the first Black elected official. The other African Americans were Civil rights leader Rosa Parks and U.S. Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut, Jr., killed in the line of duty in 1998. Cummings had battled health issues for more than two years, but his passing still came as a shock to many.

Throughout the celebration of life ceremony, Democrats and Republicans alike eulogized him as a mentor, “a quiet giant,” and most important, their friend.

Missouri Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, an ordained minister, began the ceremony with a prayer.

“Our hearts are made heavy by the transition of our colleague, our family member, our loved one, the Mahogany Marylander, Elijah Cummings, as he has moved into the realm of the unseen,” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Baltimore native, applauded Cummings for the voracious battles he fought on behalf of America’s children and children separated from their families at the border. She also applauded his eagerness to have as many freshman lawmakers as possible on the Oversight committee to help them realize their potential and allow them to lend fresh perspectives on issues vital to the nation’s future.

“Elijah was truly a master of the House. He respected its history and in it he helped shape America’s future,” Pelosi said. “I have called him our North Star: our guide to a better future for our children.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, like many Republican lawmakers, put partisanship aside for the day and praised Cummings for devoting his life to ensuring that young people got the same kind of care and opportunities that enabled him to build a bright future.

“He knew there was only one reason why a son of sharecroppers, a child who had literally had to bear the injuries of bigotry and segregation, could graduate from law school and eventually chair a powerful committee in Congress,” McConnell said. “Only one reason, because principled leaders had fought to give kids like him a chance. Chairman Cummings made it his life’s work to continue that effort. He climbed the ranks here in the Capitol, not because he outgrew his hometown but because he was so committed to it.”

Many of the speakers talked about the distance Cummings traveled from his extremely humble beginnings and the many humbling experiences along the way that helped define and lead him to become one of the most powerful and beloved members of Congress. They were attacked by Whites when he was 11 when he and a group of others tried to integrate a local public swimming pool. While being driven from the scene in a police cruiser, Cummings, who had wrongly been placed for a while in a special education class, vowed to become an attorney.

“A sharecroppers’ son, born and raised in Baltimore, Elijah Cummings never forgot where he came from and never lost sight of where he wanted his country to go,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “That’s why, no matter your politics, if you knew Elijah, you went to him for guidance. I often did. I will miss those conversations dearly. I pray for his family, for the city of Baltimore, and I pray for our nation when people like Elijah Cummings are no longer with us. Those gathered here today have lost a dear friend, and our country has lost a giant.”

“He did not set out to be a giant,” said Rep. Karen Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, “but he became one. He took on the mantle of evangelists. He didn’t work to prepare people for the hereafter. He worked to prepare people for the here and now. When Congressman Cummings spoke, he spoke with moral authority, frequently reminding us that ‘We are better than that’.” The California lawmaker added that Cummings’s CBC family will honor him “by continuing to stand and defend our democracy with the very same passion, vigor and determination you exemplified for us.”

South Carolina representative and House majority whip James Clyburn recalled how he and Cummings often shared with each other their experiences growing up as ‘PKs’ or preacher’s kids and how they chose different paths than their fathers. Quoting the biblical passage: “The Lord requires us to do justly, act mercifully and walk humbly,” Clyburn said that Cummings “personified this directive in his service and in the core of his living. Elijah had a passion for justice: justice for those who are underserved; justice for those who are undercut; and justice for those who are underestimated.”

Earlier in the week, the Congressional Black Caucus held a special hour on the House floor during which several CBC members.

“This great man, this brother, spent 36 years in public service to his people, his home State, and to our country. He was a leader who loved this nation, all of its people, and fought until his very last breath for those who had been left out and left behind.

He dedicated every single moment of his life to strengthening and preserving our Union,” said the civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. “He spent every waking moment thinking of those who were hurting and suffering. He focused all of his energy into this Congress and the people we represent. Mr. Speaker, it was an honor to know and to love him. It was an honor to serve with him. It was a great honor to consider him my brother and my friend.”

Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, stressed the need to follow Cummings’s example.

“We all have at least one Elijah Cummings story. Some of us have a lot more. But more importantly, it is how Elijah lived that we have to pay tribute to,” he said. “Elijah demonstrated every day not only that he loved the people of Baltimore, but he loved this great country. If we can just pattern our lives after Elijah Cummings’ past, we will be fine.”

Following the ceremony, congressional staffers and members of the public lined up for hours to view Cummings’s flag-draped coffin at the entrance to the House chamber