WASHINGTON – A choir sang from the balcony and light streamed in from a skylight Thursday as U.S. House and Senate leaders of both parties paused at the Capitol to honor the late Baltimore congressman and civil rights advocate Elijah Cummings, a sharecroppers’ son who said he was shaped by his humble roots.
“Elijah Cummings never forgot where he came from and never lost sight of where he wanted his country to go,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in ornate Statuary Hall, where the congressman was lying in state. “His authority came not from the office he held nor from the timbre of his voice. It came from the moral force of his life.”
As the ceremony began, attendees – including current and former members of Congress, family members and guests – stood silently waiting for the casket to arrive.
An honor guard carried the American flag-draped casket down an aisle at the center of the chamber, a two-story room in the shape of an amphitheater where the House convened from 1807 to 1857. It is surrounded by statues of historical figures donated by states, including one of Maryland’s John Hanson, a delegate to the Continental Congress.
Cummings was the first black member of Congress to lie in state in the Capitol. Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and Capitol Police officer Jacob Chestnut – killed in a Capitol shooting in 1998 – had previously received the distinction of “lying in honor,” which is what the tribute is called for people who haven’t held elected office.
Statuary Hall is south of the Capitol rotunda, where U.S. presidents and others – most recently U.S. Sen. John McCain last year – have been honored after death.
The Morgan State University Choir sang from a balcony above the hall.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who grew up in Baltimore and was close to Cummings, called him “our North Star” and “a mentor of the House.”
“His voice could shake mountains, stir the most cynical hearts, inspiring us all to be better,” Schumer said.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, recalled how Cummings was “a calming influence in a sea of rage” during unrest in Baltimore following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in city police custody.
Several speakers spoke of the ability of Cummings, a Democrat, to work with Republicans during the current fractured political climate.. Pelosi thanked Republican leaders, as well as Democrats, for quickly agreeing to allow Cummings to lie in state in the hall.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, said he had an enduring friendship with Cummings despite their political differences.
“Some have classified it as unexpected, but for those of us who know Elijah it is not unexpected or surprising,” Meadows said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Cummings “did not just represent Baltimore, he embodied it.” He said Cummings rose in the political ranks “not because he outgrew his hometown, but because he was so committed to it.”
Vice President Mike Pence was among those who attended the viewing, walking to the casket and standing quietly. Attorney General William Barr also paid his respects.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, both Democrats, were among the mourners.
Members of the public lined up to enter the hall for a viewing scheduled from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
“He was a voice in Congress who could not be silenced,” said retired Washington D.C. firefighter Gerald Blanks, who joined an outside line extending well past the entrance to the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center that provided public access to the viewing.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus – which Cummings once chaired – entered the hall together during the ceremony and later gathered around the casket to pay their respects as a group.
Cummings, 68, who had cancer, died Oct. 17 while in hospice care.