The congressman and civil rights leader Elijah Cummings was remembered on Friday as a “fierce champion of truth, justice and kindness” at a funeral that brought Washington politicians and ordinary people alike to the Baltimore church where he worshipped for nearly four decades.
Barack Obama, America’s first black president, hailed Cummings in a 16-minute eulogy as a man who was honorable long before he entered Congress and officially acquired the title bestowed on members – “the honorable” Elijah E Cummings.
“Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office. There is a difference if you are honorable and treated others honorably outside the limelight,” Obama said, adding: “As president, I knew I could always count on Elijah being honorable and doing the right thing.”
Cummings died suddenly a week ago at 68 and on Thursday, the day before his funeral, the Maryland congressman became the first African American elected politician to lie in state in the Capitol building in Washington DC.
Obama said in his eulogy: “Elijah became a lawyer to make sure that others had rights, and his people had their God-given rights, and from the statehouse to the House of Representatives, his commitment to justice and the rights of others would never, ever waver.”
Cummings was chairman of the powerful House oversight committee, one of the three committees leading the Trump-Ukraine impeachment inquiry, and he commanded respect and love from both sides of the political aisle.
Without mentioning the president, Obama on Friday eulogized leading qualities of Cummings’s that stand in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s brash and openly aggressive style as president.
“It has been remarked that Elijah was a kind man,” Obama said. He continued: “Being a strong man includes being kind … there is nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There is nothing weak about looking out for others. There is nothing weak about being honorable. You are not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect.”
Obama’s secretary of state and Trump’s defeated Democratic challenger in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, also attended the funeral with her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
Hillary Clinton was the first dignitary to deliver remarks at the funeral.
“It is no coincidence – is it? – that Elijah Cummings shared a name with an Old Testament prophet,” she said. “Like the prophet, our Elijah could call down fire from heaven. But he also prayed and worked for healing. He weathered storms and earthquakes but never lost his faith.”
Clinton, who took the stage to rousing applause, added: “Our Elijah was a fierce champion of truth, justice and kindness in every part of his life.”
The gospel and R&B singer BeBe Winans, a favorite of Cummings, performed Stand as mourners sang along, stood and raised their hands. Many wiped away tears.
The former congressman and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Kweisi Mfume honored Cummings’ work for civil rights.
“He was the 20th-century manifestation of a race of people who have suffered, endured, and survived three centuries of slavery, oppression, deprivation, degradation, denial and disprivilege.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 2020 candidate Elizabeth Warren were also among the speakers at the 4,000-seat New Psalmist Baptist church.
Pelosi said: “As we know from the Old Testament, there is a tradition to leave a seat at the table, for Elijah might show up. But our Elijah always made a seat at the table for others,” she said.
In her eulogy, Deaconess Margaret Ann Howie said: “We will carry him when we speak truth to power. We will carry him when we give a voice to the voiceless.”
At dawn, several hundred people were lined up outside, waiting for the doors to open so they could pay their final respects to the Baltimore Democrat who died on 17 October at age 68 of longstanding health problems.
“I felt like it was my civic duty, my responsibility to come and pay respects to a man who has done so much for Baltimore city, so much for the people, trying to keep us together,” said the Rev Jacqueline Williams, 67, of Baltimore, as she waited in line.
Cummings’ casket arrived at the church before daybreak and was placed, open, in front of the sanctuary.
The sharecropper’s son rose to power in Washington, where he was first elected in 1996. He led investigations of Trump and recently provoked the president’s anger, who lashed out at Cummings’ district as a “disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess” where “no human being would want to live”.
Among those waiting to get into the church was LaGreta Williams, 68, of New York, who met Cummings when they were college students in Baltimore in 1969 and remained friends. She said the teenage Cummings was a natural leader who aspired to become Maryland’s first black governor. She recalled his deep roar of a laugh.
“I think his legacy is that he was an honest person,” she said. “He wanted everyone to have an equal opportunity so that people could make better decisions for themselves, better choices.”
Trump, visiting South Carolina, sent “warmest condolences” to the family. Having insulted Cummings and Baltimore earlier this year, on Friday Trump noted that Cummings had had a “very strong passion” when they met to discuss drug overpricing.