“Booming,” “stirring” and “powerful” were just a few of the ways Cummings’s congressional colleagues described his style as remembrances poured in Thursday.
During House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s weekly news conference, she relayed an anecdote shared with her by a former colleague of Cummings’s from the Maryland House of Delegates: When Cummings would stand up, “the room would fall silent, because everyone wanted to hear what Elijah has to say," Pelosi said. "And that of course was the case in Congress, in his committee, and in the country.”
Cummings made an impression early on in his congressional career with his very first House floor speech in 1996, and continued to deliver high-impact addresses until he died. Below are five of his most memorable:
First House floor speech (1996):
Cummings spoke for less than six minutes on the House floor just after he was sworn in April 25, 1996. He introduced himself to a national audience with a poetic mix of personal biography, faith and vision, and laid out his hopes for a future in which Americans could find common ground to work with one another and “that the power is within them.”
Cummings closed with a poem by Parren J. Mitchell, the first African American to represent Maryland in Congress: “I only have a minute — 60 seconds in it. Forced upon me I did not choose it, but I know that I must use it. Suffer if I lose it, give account if I abuse it. Only a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.”
Benghazi hearing (2015)
Cummings was the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee when the majority-Republican House Select Committee on Benghazi convened to investigate decisions made by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in relation to an attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that left a U.S. diplomat and three other Americans dead. As the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel, Cummings blasted Republicans for what he criticized as a costly, partisan hearing with “no rules, no deadline, and an unlimited budget” meant to damage Clinton as a presidential candidate.
Despite clashing with Cummings, Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) respected his convictions.
“It’s not about politics to him; he says what he believes,” Gowdy told the Hill newspaper at the time. “And you can tell the ones who are saying it because it was in a memo they got that morning, and you can tell the ones who it’s coming from their soul. And with Mr. Cummings, it’s coming from his soul.”
Funeral of Freddie Gray (2015)
After the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man whose death became a symbol of police mistreatment of black men, Cummings was a constant presence in the neighborhoods as protests rocked the city. At Gray’s funeral in April, Cummings lamented Gray’s death and the hard circumstances of his youth that preceded it.
“I’ve often said that our children are the living messages we send to the future we will never see, but now, our children are sending us to a future they will never see,” he said. “There is something wrong with that picture.”
Michael Cohen testimony (2019)
After testimony in February by President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee, Cummings’s stirring closing remarks were deeply empathetic. In an attempt to insulate the president from Cohen’s damaging testimony, House Republicans sought to portray Cohen as opportunistic and untrustworthy, calling him a “rat.”
Cummings, meanwhile, highlighted their shared experiences as fathers, and acknowledged the pain and difficulty Cohen had experienced by testifying. Cummings hinted that the difficulty wouldn’t be in vain if it could help Cohen personally, and the country at large.
“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question we’ll be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?” Cummings asked. “Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?” suggesting that the country could learn a lesson from Cohen’s trajectory and find a path to redemption.
Robert S. Mueller III’s testimony (2019)
Cummings made an impassioned plea to the American people in July, after testimony by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in which he said his report into investigations of Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election did not exonerate the president.
Cummings dismissed the notion that the furor over the Mueller report was because of Democrats’ dislike of Trump, and implied that the country was at a crossroads under Trump’s leadership. How Americans chose to react, he argued, would define the state of democracy for generations to come.
“It’s not about not liking the president, it’s about loving democracy. It’s about loving our country. It’s about making a difference for generations yet unborn,” Cummings said. “I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on. Because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children and your children’s children, and generations yet unborn, we have got to guard this moment. This is our watch.”
Elijah E. Cummings, 1951-2019: Democratic leader and civil rights champion dies at 68