The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elijah Cummings did more than serve Baltimore. He gave hope to the hopeless.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) speaks to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House on March 8, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Elijah Cummings was a good man, a great leader and a dear friend of mine. We worked closely together in Congress, and my wife, Mika, and I were deeply honored when he agreed to officiate our wedding. And although I considered the Baltimore congressman a member of our extended family, there were parts of his remarkable life that I knew little about until President Trump attacked him and the city he loved.

The president called Baltimore “rat and rodent infested” and criticized Cummings for not spending more time at home. The former reality-TV host’s clumsy attempt at stirring racial divisions proved only how ignorant he was about the target of his attacks. Unlike other members of Congress, Cummings returned home to his district every night, working each day in the community he proudly served. While there, he worked tirelessly to empower minority-owned businesses, assist inner-city educators, partner with faith leaders and deliver life-sustaining services to seniors in need.

But Cummings, who died Thursday at the age of 68, did more than excel at constituent services; he provided hope to the hopeless. In May 2008, Cummings pulled up to a gas station where a botched robbery had left a man, who was taking his pregnant wife to the hospital, stabbed and struggling for life. Instead of fleeing danger, Cummings got down on his knees and aided that dying father in the last moments of his life.

Cummings held the man’s head in his arms and tried to stop the bleeding as the father-to-be struggled to make sure his wife and unborn son were safe. As they waited for the ambulances to arrive, Cummings prayed over the victim. He recalled that although the dying man did not speak English well, he gently squeezed his hand when he heard the name “Jesus.” Cummings would later say that while kneeling down in that gas station parking lot, he witnessed “a struggle for life so intense that I felt my own breath taken away.”

Cummings endured the pain of gun violence, too. His nephew was shot and killed by someone who broke into his house while the young man was attending college in 2011. But that tragedy only strengthened his resolve, as did the Baltimore riots following the death of Freddie Gray. He took to the streets with a bullhorn, bravely standing beside his constituents. It was yet another example of how the congressman never ran away from service; instead, he ran fearlessly toward it.

What a stark contrast from a president who avoided service in Vietnam to golf and play tennis at an Ivy League school and who now abandons allies to die on the battlefield without a second thought. Sadly, Cummings once confessed that he spent much of his time comforting citizens in his district who grew frightened of the increasingly racially charged atmosphere created by the president’s words and tweets.

In the final years of his life, Cummings dedicated himself to upholding this country’s enduring promise that in the United States, no man is above the law. He was among the first to demand answers surrounding the possible crimes of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he conducted a series of significant hearings on the misdeeds committed by this corrupt White House.

Cummings led those inquiries with uncommon grace and compassion. At one point, he went out of his way to defend the honor of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus. At another, he delivered such a stirring message of mercy that former Trump fixer Michael Cohen was moved to tears.

As it was with John McCain’s passing, Elijah Cummings’s death leaves America with a void. We can only hope that others in his committee and throughout Congress will be moved to action by the example of Baltimore’s most powerful advocate and by the life of a man who provided a spiritual center to a city in desperate need of revival.

Read more:

The Post’s View: As long as he had breath, Elijah Cummings spoke out

Colbert I. King: Elijah Cummings was the keeper of the nation’s conscience

Donna Edwards: Elijah Cummings was a giant among legislators

Karen Tumulty: The fleeting moment of decency in Washington over Elijah Cummings

Gillian Brockell: A white mob attacked Elijah Cummings for integrating a swimming pool. He was 11.

Letters: Trump is wrong about Elijah Cummings and his district

Rachel Garbow Monroe: It’s time to change the narrative on Baltimore. There’s a lot worth celebrating.