Elijah Cummings, Longtime Baltimore Congressman, Dead At 68 From A Long-Standing Illness And Health Challenges

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, speaks at a National Press Club Headliners luncheon in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, August 7, 2019.  (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto)

Elijah Cummings, Longtime Baltimore Congressman, Dead At 68 From A Long-Standing Illness And Health Challenges

The civil rights icon and chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee was spotted in recent weeks with a breathing tube.

Published 3 weeks ago

Written by Zayda Rivera

Rep. Elijah Cummings has died at the age of 68.

The Baltimore congressman passed away early Thursday (October 17) morning at Gilchrist Hospice Care, a Johns Hopkins affiliate in Baltimore, “due to complications concerning long-standing health challenges,” a statement released by his office confirmed.

Rep. Cummings underwent an unspecified medical procedure and did not return to his office this week, according to the Baltimore Sun.   

He had undergone multiple surgeries in the last two years on his heart and knee, Time reports.

A PASSIONATE CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER

Rep. Cummings was known as a passionate civil rights leader and one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, and he was a key figure in the impeachment investigation of Trump. 

He was respected by both Democrats and Republicans and served as the Congressman for Maryland’s 7th District for 23 years. 

“With the passing of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the City of Baltimore, our country, and people throughout the world have lost a powerful voice and one of the strongest and most gifted crusaders for social justice,” Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in a statement following the Congressman’s passing, the Baltimore Sun reports.

“Rep. Cummings, the son of sharecroppers whose ancestors were slaves, wasn’t afraid to use his considerable intellect, booming voice, and poetic oratory to speak out against brutal dictators bent on oppression, unscrupulous business executives who took advantage of unsuspecting customers, or even a U.S. president,” Mayor Young continued. “He was, put simply, a man of God who never forgot his duty to fight for the rights and dignity of the marginalized and often forgotten.” 

GROWING UP IN BALTIMORE DURING THE 1950s AND 1960s

Rep. Cummings’ respected work started long before being elected into office. 

He was born in Baltimore on Jan. 18, 1951, and by the time he was 11 years old, he decided to begin fighting racially charged injustices. 

It was at that tender age that Mr. Cummings helped integrate a local swimming pool while being attacked with bottles and rocks, the Washington Post reports.  

Inspired by the hit television series Perry Mason, Cummings entered the legal profession to continue serving his community.

“Many young men in my neighborhood were going to reform school,” he told the East Texas Review. “Though I didn’t completely know what reform school was, I knew that Perry Mason won a lot of cases. I also thought that these young men probably needed lawyers.”

EDUCATION AND LAW CAREER INSPIRED BY PERRY MASON

In 1976, Mr. Cummings graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law, receiving his J.D. He was later admitted to the Maryland Bar and practiced law for nearly 20 years before beginning his career in politics. 

He got a taste of politics serving as student government president during his sophomore year as an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in political science in 1973.

THE START OF HIS POLITICAL CAREER

At the start of his political career in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he served from 1983 to 1996, Mr. Cummings became the youngest chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and the first African-American to serve as speaker pro tempore, the member who presides in the speaker’s absence, the Washington Post reports

During that time, Rep. Cummings was the force behind a ban on alcohol and tobacco ads on inner-city billboards in Baltimore, which was the first prohibition of its kind in a major U.S. city. 

He won the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996 and went on to serve as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Mr. Cummings then became chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. 

“We’ve got to hit the ground, not running, but flying,” he told CBS after taking the position of chairman back in January, explaining how he had less than two years in that post to make real change.

THE DEATH OF FREDDIE GRAY

In 2015, Mr. Cummings was a calming force and reassuring voice to the angered Baltimore community following the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015, one week after the 25-year-old Black man was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department. Gray was injured after being improperly secured while being transported in a police van.

“Did anybody recognize Freddie when he was alive? Did you see him? Did you see him? Did you see him?” he said during a powerful speech at Gray’s funeral.

“I’ve often said, our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see,” the congressman continued. “But now our children are sending us to the future they will never see! There’s something wrong with that picture!”

When riots broke out in West Baltimore following Gray’s death, Rep. Cummings was one of the main voices that eased the tension and restored order. 

Cummings joined in a public display of peace to calm the outraged community. Singing “This Little Light of Mine,” Rep. Cummings marched arm in arm with a dozen other residents through the streets of West Baltimore. 

The highly respected Congressman was known for carrying a bullhorn that read, “The gentleman will not yield.” 

That bullhorn not only represented something personal for Rep. Cummings, after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif) silenced his microphone in 2014 during a hearing about the IRS unfairly targeting conservative nonprofit groups, but it spoke directly to the people, the Black community and other vulnerable populations that needed a voice like his. 

THE TRUMP ERA

Then came the Trump era. Rep. Cummings made efforts to work with the new administration in 2017 and 2018, but said his attempts were fruitless.

Trump called Cummings’ district “a disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess.” 

When reporters called him out on his racist comments, Trump said, “I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” 

Trump went on to accuse Cummings and other Baltimore City politicians of stealing federal funds given to the city. 

“Baltimore’s numbers are the worst in the United States on Crime and the Economy,” Trump tweeted on July 29, 2019

“Billions of dollars have been pumped in over the years, but to no avail,” he continued. “The money was stolen or wasted. Ask Elijah Cummings where it went. He should investigate himself with his Oversight Committee!”

Trump continued trying to discredit Rep. Cummings and said, “over 20 years has been stolen and wasted by people like Elijah Cummings.”

“Those people are living in hell in Baltimore,” Trump added. “They’re largely African-American, you have a large African-American population, and they really appreciate what I’m doing. And they’ve let me know it. They really appreciate it.” 

Trump went on to insist the community of Baltimore was praising his efforts. 

“The African-American people have been calling the White House. They have never been so happy as what a president has done,” Trump said. “They’re so happy that I pointed out the corrupt politics of Baltimore. It’s filthy, dirty. It’s so horrible, and they are happy as hell.” 

“Perhaps if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have had a lot of hope,” the congressman said after he stopped hearing from Trump, following what he felt were promising meetings, according to the Washington Post.

Rep. Cummings added, “He is a man who quite often calls the truth a lie and calls a lie the truth.” 

Trump tweeted in reaction to the news of Cummings’ death and wrote, “My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings. I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!”

REACTIONS TO THE PASSING OF A LEADER

The congressman leaves behind many loved ones, including his wife, Maya Rockeymore Cummings.

“Congressman Cummings was an honorable man who proudly served his district and the nation with dignity, integrity, compassion and humility,” she said in a statement.  

“He worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity,” she continued. “I loved him deeply and will miss him dearly."

Several others echoed her sentiment, praising the congressman for his leadership, resilience and compassion. 

“We lost a giant today,” Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted. “Congressman Elijah Cummings was a fearless leader, a protector of democracy, and a fighter for the people of Maryland. Our world is dimmer without him in it.”

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The Black Caucus tweeted, “We - the nation, the city of Baltimore, the State of Maryland, and the United States Congress - have all suffered a tremendous loss."

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“As a lifelong advocate for justice, equality, and the truth, Elijah Cummings was the true definition of a leader & his commitment to civility & humanity were invaluable in times such as these,” the Black Caucus also tweeted. “To many, he was a friend & mentor, but to the members of the CBC, Elijah was family.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James tweeted, “Our country has lost a giant. Congressman Elijah Cummings was a true leader in our fight for a more fair and just society. A civil rights activist, a dedicated public servant, and a powerful force for good - he left his mark on our communities. Rest in power, my friend.”

“Chairman Elijah E. Cummings and I shared a city, an alma mater, a love of law and a life of public service,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in a statement

“I am deeply saddened by his passing, and my prayers today are with his family and loved ones - and the people of Baltimore,” Sen. Cardin continued. “The death of Chairman Cummings leaves an irreplaceable void in our hearts, in our Maryland and in our Congress. Quite possibly no elected official mattered so much to his constituents. Chairman Cummings guaranteed a voice to so many who would otherwise not have one, and stood as a symbol for the heights one could reach if they paid no mind to obstacles, naysayers and hate. His commitment to his city and country was unwavering, as will be my lasting respect for him.” 

Actress and Baltimore-native Nicole Ari Parker tweeted, “Rep. Elijah Cummings 1951-2019. #GreatLeader #GreatHumanitarian #GreatFighterforTruth. Baltimore will miss you. Congress will miss you. This country will miss you.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the congressman, who was her biggest defender during the 2015 congressional hearing on the Benghazi attacks, tweeted:  

“America lost a giant with the passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings, a man of principle who championed truth, justice and kindness. He fiercely loved his country and the people he served. Rest in Peace, my friend.”

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of MA’s 7th congressional district tweeted, “Our Chairman leaves behind a beautiful and powerful legacy. I am already feeling the impact of a little less grace in the world. Deep gratitude to have spent these early months in Congress guided by his wisdom. Rest in power.” 

Rep. Debbi Wasserman Schultz said in a statement, “When our nation can ill-afford to lose such a kind, principled leader, one of my dearest friends and mentors has left us. My heart is broken, as I weep personally and for his family and community.” 

Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, who chairs the House GOP conference, said in a statement, “Elijah’s passion for servicing his beloved city was easy to see in everything he did, and his determination to fight for equality and civil rights will never be forgotten. He was a friend to all and sought to use his position in Congress to bridge divides, not widen them.” 

Rep. Cummings officiated the wedding of former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough from Florida when he married MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezinski. 

Scarborough tweeted about Cummings and said he was “a good man, a great leader, and a dear friend. We worked closely together in Congress and I was honored that he married Mika and me. Elijah was a member of our family whom we loved. May God bless his own family now in these troubled times.”

Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker tweeted, “Today our country lost a true leader. Congressman Elijah Cummings was a friend, a passionate fighter for justice, and a powerful voice of moral conscience in our government who served his country for decades with dignity and integrity. I’m blessed to have known him. #RIPElijah”

“We are struck this morning to hear the news about the passing of Congressman Elijah Cummings,” Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro tweeted. “His death is a tragedy not just for the city of Baltimore, but for our entire nation, and for all those who fight for justice.”

The other Democratic presidential candidates also reacted with praise and remorse over Cummings’ death. 

Pete Buttigieg tweeted a quote by Cummings, “‘I want justice, oceans of it. I want fairness, rivers of it. That’s what I want.’” 

“@RepCummings, a man of courage and faith,” Buttigieg added. “My deepest sympathies are with the Cummings family and his community. Let us honor him by insisting on justice and integrity in leadership, as he did.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “Whenever anyone would ask @RepCummings why we should keep fighting, even when the odds were against us, he’d always say: ‘We don’t have the right to be silent.’ We honor his memory by staying in the fight and keeping his hope alive. Rest in power, Elijah.”

Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted, “It was my honor to work closely with Rep. Elijah Cummings over the years. His integrity and moral vision for his community and the country were extraordinary. He will be sorely missed. Jane and I are deeply saddened by the loss of our friend. Our thoughts are with his family.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement, “Elijah Cummings was a true public servant, his life defined by the love of his community and a fierce commitment to ensuring truth wins over power. The whole Biden family sends our condolences to his wife, Maya, his children, and the entire city of Baltimore.”

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang tweeted, “This is a tragic loss for Baltimore and the country. #RIPElijah” 

Beto O’Rourke tweeted, “We lost one of our best. A son of sharecroppers, who went on to represent one of our greatest cities; a fighter for justice, who always led with love--Rep. Elijah Cummings was everything right about America. He is already missed, but his legacy will be with us forever.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar tweeted, “We’ve lost a leader like no other. Elijah Cummings was a lion when standing up for his beloved Baltimore & rights & truth. But he was also so kind, including to brand new senators like me a decade ago. His advice was as true as his love for his country.”

Marianne Williamson tweeted, “Congressman Elijah Cummings (1951-2019) was someone whose presence lifted all of us to a better place. The example of both his personhood and his politics blazed a trail for the rest of us to follow. May he Rest In Peace, and in his honor may we carry on.”

Tulsi Gabbard tweeted, “Very sad news this morning. My heart goes out to the Cummings family during this difficult time. Elijah Cummings dedicated his life to service and will truly be missed.”

Steve Bullock tweeted, “Congressman Elijah Cummings was a courageous moral leader and a relentless advocate for a better world. Our thoughts are with the Congressman’s family and loved ones today.”

John Delaney tweeted, “April and I are heartbroken about the loss of our good friend Elijah Cummings. We loved everything about him - he was a man of character, intelligence, kindness and grace. Our nation has lost one of our truly great leaders. We pray for him, for the wonderful Maya and his family.”  

Wayne Messam tweeted, “I am saddened that fellow Archon @RepCummings has passed away. His life will be remembered as a fierce fighter for justice & truth. May his soul Rest In Power and his legacy be a reminder for us all to be change agents in a world that is reluctant to change for the better.”

Photo: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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