BALTIMORE (AP) — The final farewells to the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings began Wednesday in Baltimore, where constituents, family members, elected officials and others remembered the Maryland congressman for working tirelessly and fearlessly for social justice from childhood until his death.
Hundreds of mourners paid respects to Cummings during a public viewing at a historically black college that was followed by tributes from fraternal organizations and remarks from his widow and nearly 30 people who knew him as friend, colleague and mentor. He was praised for being a passionate advocate for the disadvantaged and youth and for fighting to preserve democracy, most recently as he took on the White House as a prominent figure in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.
"Elijah loved this country with every fiber of his being," U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said to those gathered at Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center. "He devoted his entire life to making America better."
Cummings died Thursday at age 68 of complications from long-standing health issues. A sharecropper's son, Cummings began his long push for civil rights at age 11, when he helped integrate a swimming pool in Baltimore — one of the many stories speakers shared with the crowd. He went on to become a lawyer and elected official, most recently leading one of the U.S. House committees conducting an impeachment inquiry of Trump.
Inside the university venue, the open casket with the seal of the U.S. House on the cap's interior was placed in front of an auditorium stage, flanked by arrangements of white flowers. Two members of the Masonic group Knights Templar, one on each side of the casket, stood guard in dark uniforms with gold trim. The congressman's widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, later closed the black casket with silver trimmings ahead of tributes and prayers from fraternal organizations.
Throughout the day, a large screen above the stage showed photos of Cummings along with portions of his news interviews and remarks in Congress. On display were photos of him with former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, and MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, whose wedding he officiated in 2018.
Flowers were laid outside the arts center, including an arrangement from the university's president that included a note with the message, "Congressman Cummings was a great man and will be truly missed."
Baltimore resident Sandra Whitehurst said she stopped by the auditorium because she wants to be able to tell her 15-year-old grandson that she was present to pay her respects to the late congressman.
Whitehurst said today's youth read books about civil rights champions such as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cummings, but don't realize the struggle "was real."
"I lived through Jim Crow. I lived through segregation," Whitehurst, 72, said. "... To them, it's just a story."
She said she was "particularly proud" of how Cummings "stood up to (President Donald) Trump" this summer, when he disparaged Cummings' majority-black district.
Rockeymoore Cummings told the audience the congressman, who in his last days could not get out of bed, saw his beloved city one last time two days before his death. That Tuesday, health care workers wheeled his bed to the helipad of Johns Hopkins Hospital to give him some "sunshine therapy," she said.
"They allowed us to go on the roof of Johns Hopkins hospital, and we wheeled Elijah out, and he looked upon the Inner Harbor," she said. "He looked upon south Baltimore, where he grew up. He looked at the downtown. He looked towards the west side. And it was so glorious. And he said 'Boy, I've come a long way.' Man, has he come a long way."
Morgan State University is in Maryland's seventh congressional district, which he represented since 1996. He served on the school's Board of Regents for 19 years.
Cummings' body will lie in state on Thursday in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. A wake and funeral for Cummings is planned Friday at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, where the congressman worshipped for nearly four decades. Obama is expected to attend Friday's services.
Baltimore resident Katrina Hutton emerged from the viewing area with tears in her eyes.
"He's always been there for us and supported us," she said. "No scandal. He's been forthright with everything he's done for us."