He stood up for the poor and the disadvantaged throughout urban America – but Elijah Cummings was principally the strong voice and political advocate for Baltimore, where he was revered as his hometown’s champion.
The Democratic congressman lived at the doorstep of some of the city’s worst rioting, including violent 2015 protests following the death of a Black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody. Cummings’ involvement, taking to the streets with a bullhorn, helped quiet the storm.
Cummings, who died early Oct. 17 at age 68 , also defended his majority-Black city against President Donald Trump, who called his congressional district “disgusting” and a “rodent-infested mess,” after Cummings criticized administration officials in oversight hearings.
“Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors. It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents,” Cummings tweeted.
“He was so noble,” said city resident Mary Bianchi, who dropped flowers outside his home and walked away wiping tears off her face. “He was a lion, and I’m very sad. He died too young.”
Debbie Rock, the director of the Light Health & Wellness Comprehensive Services Inc., said he helped people see they can change the city for the better. He was also a strong supporter of her organization, which helps children and families affected by health and social issues like substance abuse.
“He’s just always been a champion as it pertains to us never giving up the fight,” Rock said.
State Sen. Antonio Hayes, who has lived near Cummings in West Baltimore for years, said the congressman earned the respect and reverence of the community with his authentic personality and deep roots here.
“Only Elijah could come into a West Baltimore neighborhood that saw him grow up all his life without security or a huge entourage and talk to clergy and community leaders to call for calm and peace in a chaotic situation,” Hayes said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who grew up in Baltimore and whose father and brother were mayors of the city, said she was “personally devastated by his passing.”
The congressman’s long push for civil rights began in Baltimore when he was 11, when he helped integrate a local swimming pool. During a speech to the American Bar Association in April, Cummings recalled how he and other Black children were barred from an Olympic-sized public pool in his South Baltimore neighborhood.
They organized protest marches with help from their recreation leader and the Baltimore-based NAACP. Every day for a week, when the children tried to get into the pool, they were spit upon, threatened and called names, Cummings said. One day, he was cut by a bottle thrown from an angry crowd.
“I am not saying that the integration of a swimming pool in South Baltimore changed the course of American history,” Cummings said. “What I can and will share with you is that the experience transformed my entire life.”
With his booming voice and gift for oratory, he was known for representing his district – which encompassed much of Baltimore and some of its wealthier suburbs – with a personal touch.
Poinsetta McKnight, who walked by Cummings’ home in West Baltimore, said he always assisted her family when they had neighborhood concerns, whether it was removing trash or addressing boarded-up houses.
“Whenever we needed something done, all we had to do was write to him and he would respond,” said McKnight.
While serving in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1983 to 1996, Cummings pushed for ban on alcohol and tobacco ads on inner-city billboards in Baltimore, leading to the first such prohibition in a large U.S. city.
Khalilah Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, said Cummings was a champion of the unique policy needs of urban communities.
“The passing of Elijah Cummings represents the waning of an era in American politics where people rose to national office by first working within their local communities,” Brown-Dean said.