U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings Of Maryland: 5 Things To Know

BALTIMORE, MD — From hardscrabble early years as the son of a sharecropper in segregated south Baltimore to breaking the color barrier as the first African American to serve as Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings rose to national prominence in the U.S. House of Representatives, sparring with President Trump and solidifying his legacy as a role model for black Americans.

Cummings, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, died early Thursday in hospice care in Baltimore from an undisclosed illness. He was 68.

Here are 5 things to know about the late congressman’s life and career.

1. Freddie Gray Riots: The Baltimore portion of Cummings’ congressional district was the epicenter of the 2015 riots ignited by the death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody.
When looting began, Cummings helped restore order in a West Baltimore neighborhood, assuring residents that authorities were taking the case seriously.

Cummings was in the streets, carrying a bullhorn and urging crowds to go home and respect a curfew. He spoke at Gray’s funeral, asking lawmakers in the church to stand up to show Gray’s mother they would seek justice.

Cummings was among the lawmakers who called on the Justice Department to investigate Gray’s death. “We need the facts to restore the public confidence in the Baltimore Police Department,” the lawmakers said in their letter.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told National Public Radio that Cummings “was a moral force in the community. People trusted him in the unrest after Freddie Gray was killed — it was Elijah Cummings who could walk into the crowd and be recognized and have people respond to him,” Ifill said. “And so I think what the country has seen of him over the last year is a reflection of what many of us here in Baltimore have known for the 20 years of his leadership. A man of tremendous, tremendous integrity.”

2. Role In Trump Impeachment Inquiry: As head of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has been demanding documents about Trump’s policies and personal finances, Cummings drew the president’s wrath. Cummings was an early advocate for investigations into whether the president violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars presidents from taking money from a foreign government or accepting any domestic compensation except a salary.

“In the House, Elijah was our North Star,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “He was a leader of towering character and integrity, whose stirring voice and steadfast values pushed the Congress and country to rise always to a higher purpose.”

Despite their contentious relationship, Trump tweeted his condolences and the White House lowered the flag to half-staff in Cummings’ honor.

“My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings,” Trump tweeted. “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!”

In July, the president called Cummings’ district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live,” after Cummings criticized conditions at immigration centers.

“I don’t think these Republicans or Trump fully understand what it feels like to be treated like less than a dog,” Cummings told The Baltimore Sun. “I’m feeling the same things that I felt when these white folks down in South Baltimore were throwing rocks and bottles at me. But now, I feel like it’s the president of the United States doing it.”

Cummings was the top Democrat on the Benghazi Committee led by Republicans as they probed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s actions. As Oversight Committee chairman, Cummings convened the highly watched hearing when Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified against his old boss.

3. Son Of A Sharecropper: As the son of a sharecropper who grew up in a poor part of Baltimore, Cummings was told in grade school he was slow and a poor speaker who would never become a lawyer, as he had dreamed, the Associated Press reported. This made him more determined to succeed, and he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from Howard University in Washington, a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law and 13 honorary doctoral degrees from institutions of higher learning throughout the nation, his biography states.

His father, Robert Cummings Sr., worked as a laborer for 42 years with W.R. Grace before retiring in 1989. The elder Cummings was born in South Carolina, the son of sharecroppers, and often worked in the fields as a young man. When farm work needed to be done, he was taken out of school, The Baltimore Sun reported.

4. Facing Racism: Cummings broke barriers of class and race throughout his life, integrating a Baltimore swimming pool as a youth, practicing law, serving as the first black speaker pro-tem of the Maryland House and holding a seat in Congress fore more than two.

“We are filled with love because that’s what Elijah spread in response to hate, from his childhood as a victim of a white mob who opposed integration of a swimming pool, to his final year as the target of hate bias by the President of the United States,” Anne Arundel (Maryland) County Executive Steuart Pittman said.

Cummings had a scar on his eyebrow from a white mob’s attack in 1962, when a bottle was thrown at him. Assailants threw rocks and bottles at Cummings and other African American youths as they tried to integrate the Riverside Park pool in South Baltimore, the Baltimore Sun reported. The shouts he heard at the pool — “Go back where you came from!” — were similar to the rhetoric of President Trump, the Congressman told The Baltimore Sun.

5. Political Career: Cummings graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Howard, where he was the student government president. He was then a practicing attorney and served for 14 years in the Maryland House of Delegates. He was the first African American in the state’s history to be named speaker pro-tem, in 1995.

Cummings served in the Maryland House, representing a Baltimore City district from 1983 to 1996, when he was elected to the U.S. House. He also held various leadership positions — as vice chair for the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee and the Economic Matters Committee. In 1984 and 1985, Cummings was the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland.

Cummings had served in Congress since winning a special election in 1996 to fill the seat vacated by Kweisi Mfume, who resigned to become president of the NAACP, Capital News Service reported.

Filling the seat vacated by the death of Cummings will require a special election. According to Maryland law, Gov. Larry Hogan has 10 days to issue a proclamation for a special primary election and special general election.

The special primary would be held on a Tuesday at least 65 days after Hogan’s proclamation, and the special general election would be scheduled for a Tuesday at least 65 days after the special primary.