FILE - In this Aug. 3, 2019, Congressman Elijah Cummings speaks at the grand opening of the McCullough Street Nature Play Space in West Baltimore. Cummings, a sharecropper's son who rose to become the powerful chairman of a U.S. House committee that investigated President Donald Trump, died early Thursday, Oct. 17 of complications from longstanding health issues, his office said. He was 68. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun via AP, File)

Cummings provided strength, calm, for urban Baltimore

October 17, 2019 - 11:07 am

BALTIMORE (AP) — He stood up for the poor and the disadvantaged throughout urban America - but Elijah Cummings was principally the strong voice and political advocate for his hometown of Baltimore, where he was revered as an advocate and champion.

The Democratic congressman lived at the doorstep of some of the city's worst rioting, including violent protests in 2015 that erupted following the funeral of a black man, Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. Cummings' involvement helped quiet the storm.

Cummings, who died early Thursday at age 68, also led multiple investigations into White House dealings. President Donald Trump has lashed out at Cummings, calling his congressional district "disgusting" and a "rodent-infested mess."

Any lingering acrimony was put aside Thursday. Hours after the congressman's death was announced, Trump lauded his "strength, passion, and wisdom." Residents of Cummings' beloved Baltimore did the same.

"He was so noble," said city resident Mary Bianchi, who dropped flowers outside his home and walked away wiping tears off her face. "He was a lion, and I'm very sad. He died too young."

Debbie Rock, the founder and director of the Light Health & Wellness Comprehensive Services Inc., said she revered the congressman for his devotion to her organization, which helps children and families affected by health and social issues like substance abuse.

"He's just always been a champion as it pertains to us never giving up the fight," Rock said, recalling his leadership in helping people in the community see that they can change the city for the better.

State Sen. Antonio Hayes, who has lived near Cummings in West Baltimore for years, said the congressman earned the respect and reverence of people in the community with his authentic personality and long connection to the city.

"Only Elijah could come into a West Baltimore neighborhood that saw him grow up all his life without security or a huge entourage and talk to clergy and community leaders to call for calm and peace in a chaotic situation," Hayes said.

Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon, said, "there was no greater friend to the poor, to the lost, to the left out and left behind" than Cummings.

"His fearless advocacy and his ability to be a true representative on their behalf, helped them stand a little bit taller and a little bit straighter, even while forces work to erase their contribution," Lewis said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was born in Baltimore, said Cummings' leadership of the Oversight and Reform Committee reflected his commitment to restoring honesty and honor to government.

"He believed in the promise of America because he had lived it, and he dedicated his life to advancing the values that safeguard our republic: justice, equality, liberty, fairness," Pelosi said.

Earlier this summer, Cummings took the high road in inviting Trump to visit Baltimore, declining to respond to a barrage of presidential tweets and comments disparaging him and the majority-black city he represented.

The congressman's long push for civil rights began when he was 11, when he helped integrate a local swimming pool in Baltimore. During a speech to the American Bar Association in April, Cummings recalled how he and other black children were barred from an Olympic-sized public pool in his South Baltimore neighborhood.

They organized protest marches with help from their recreation leader and the Baltimore-based NAACP. Every day for a week, when the children tried to get into the pool, they were spit upon, threatened and called names, Cummings said. One day, he was cut by a bottle thrown from an angry crowd.

"I am not saying that the integration of a swimming pool in South Baltimore changed the course of American history," Cumming said. "What I can and will share with you is that the experience transformed my entire life."

With his booming voice and gift for oratory, he was known for representing his district - which encompassed much of Baltimore and some of its wealthier suburbs - with a personal touch.

Poinsetta McKnight, who walked by Cummings' home in West Baltimore, said he always assisted her family when they had neighborhood concerns, whether it was removing trash or addressing boarded-up houses.

"Whenever we needed something done, all we had to do was write to him and he would respond," said McKnight.

While serving in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1983 to 1996, Cummings pushed for ban on alcohol and tobacco ads on inner-city billboards in Baltimore, leading to the first such prohibition in a large U.S. city.

Khalilah Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, said Cummings was a champion of the unique policy needs of urban communities.

"The passing of Elijah Cummings represents the waning of an era in American politics where people rose to national office by first working within their local communities," Brown-Dean said.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.