The late United States Representative Elijah Cummings was hailed as the “North Star” for fellow House Democrats as congressional leaders and colleagues paid tribute to him at a Capitol ceremony Thursday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a close personal and political ally, said that not only was Cummings a guiding light, “Elijah was truly a master of the House.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recalled Cummings’s efforts to calm his native Baltimore amid violent 2015 protests following the death of an African American man, Freddie Gray, in police custody. Cummings’ involvement, taking to the streets with a bullhorn, helped quiet the disturbances.
By day, Cummings was at the Capitol in the halls of power, McConnell said, but at night he returned to Baltimore to encourage unity.
“Let’s go home. Let’s all go home,” McConnell recalled Cummings saying at the time. “Now our distinguished colleague truly has gone home.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that, like Cummings’s namesake, the Prophet Elijah, the congressman “saw wrongdoing and spent his life working to banish it from our land”.
Hoyer also recalled the 2015 Baltimore protests and said Cummings was “a calming influence in a sea of rage”.
A sharecropper’s son, Cummings rose to become a civil rights champion and chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, where he was a leader of an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. He died October 17 after complications from long-standing health problems.
Hoyer and other speakers remembered a frequent Cummings lament when events went awry or politicians acted badly: “We are better than this,” Cummings would thunder to all who would listen.
Representative Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Cummings was respected and revered in the caucus, “a quiet giant” whose words were heeded.
“He pulled no punches. He was authentic to the core and a champion of our democracy,” Bass said.
Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who frequently sparred with Cummings on the Oversight and Reform Committee, called Cummings a close friend whose “smile would consume his whole face.”
But Cummings “also had eyes that would pierce through anybody that was standing in his way,” Meadows recalled. Bowing his head, Meadows said he was blessed to know Cummings, adding: “Perhaps this place and this country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships.”
The public was to have the chance to pay respects to Cummings later on Thursday in the Statuary Hall. Cummings is just the third African American to lie in honour at the Capitol and the first black legislator.
A wake and funeral are planned for Friday in Baltimore.
As a tribute to Cummings, no votes were scheduled Thursday in the House.