Former President Barack Obama delivered a stirring eulogy at the funeral for Rep. Elijah Cummings on Friday, remembering the 12-term Maryland Democrat in Congress and native son of Baltimore as a dedicated public servant with a “noble and good heart” whose “commitment to justice and the rights of others would never, ever waver.”
“His life validates the things we tell ourselves about what is possible in this country,” the former president added.
Obama spoke late in the program, and his speech marked one of the most anticipated moments of a homegoing service that included statements from several high-profile politicians and civil rights figures including former US senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rep. Marcia Fudge, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former Congress member and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. Obama was one of two former presidents to speak at the service; former President Bill Clinton spoke before him.
During a memorial service that served as both a celebration of Cummings’s life and a reminder of the tremendous power and influence the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair wielded over two decades in federal politics, the 44th president called for people to remember Cummings’s commitment to people.
“It now falls on us to continue his work,” Obama said, so that other children “might too have a chance to grow and to flourish. That’s how we will honor him.”
The connection between Obama and Cummings developed early, and the Maryland congressman was an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. “President Obama, he was so proud,” Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the Congress member’s widow, said during the service. “To stand with you and for you early, to be your co-chair here in the state of Maryland, to serve as your chief defense attorney on the House Oversight Committee, and to make sure that you and your administration were all right.”
At one point in his remarks, Obama paused to note that Cummings’s role as a US Congress member had added a fitting title to his name — the word “honorable.”
“This is a title that we confer on all kinds of people who get elected to public office,” Obama said. “We are supposed to introduce them as honorable.”
“But Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office,” he noted. “There’s a difference.”
The former president had previously issued a powerful statement about Cummings’s life on October 17, saying that the Congress member “stood tallest and most resolute when our country needed him most.”
A transcript of Obama’s full eulogy can be read below.
To the president and first lady, and the bishop, and the family, to the Cummings family — Mr. President, Madam Secretary, Madam Speaker, Governor, friends, colleagues, staff …
The seeds on good soil, the parable of the sower tells us, stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering, produce a crop. The seed on good soil. Elijah Cummings came from good soil.
And in this sturdy frame, goodness took root. His parents were sharecroppers from the South. They picked tobacco and strawberries, and then sought something better in this city, South Baltimore. Robert worked shifts at a plant, and Ruth cleaned other people’s homes. They became the parents of seven, preachers to a small flock.
I remember I had the pleasure of meeting Elijah’s mother, Ruth, and she told me she prayed for me every day. And I knew it was true, and I felt better for it. Sometimes, people say they are praying for you, and you don’t know. They might be praying about you. But you don’t know if they are praying for you. But I knew Miss Ruth was telling the truth.
So they were the proverbial salt of the Earth, and they passed on that strength and that grit, but also that kindness and that faith, to their son. As a boy, Elijah’s dad made him shine his shoes and tie his tie, and they would go to the airport — not to board the airplanes, but to watch others do it. I remember Elijah telling me this story. Robert would say, “I have not flied. I may not fly. But you will fly one day. We can’t afford it right now, but you will fly.”
His grandmother — as Elijah related — and as grandmothers do, was a little more impatient with her advice. Your daddy, she said, “He been waiting and waiting for a better day. Don’t you wait.” And Elijah did not wait. Against all odds, Elijah earned his degrees. He learned about the rights of all people in this country — that all people in this country are supposed to possess, with a little help, apparently, from Perry Mason.
Elijah became a lawyer to make sure 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. Elijah’s example, a son of parents who rose from nothing to carve out a little something, a public servant who toiled to guarantee the least of us have the same opportunities that he had earned, a leader who once said he would die for his people, even as he lived every minute for them — his life validates the things we tell ourselves about what is possible in this country. Not guaranteed, but possible. The possibility that our destinies are not preordained.
But rather, through our work, with our dedication, and our willingness to open our hearts to God’s message of love for all people, we can live a purposeful life. We can reap a bountiful harvest. We are neither sentenced to weather among the rocks nor assured a bounty, but we have a capacity, a chance, as individuals and as a nation, to root ourselves in good soil. Elijah understood that. That’s why he fought for justice. That’s why he embraced his beloved community of Baltimore.
That’s why he went on to fight for the rights and opportunities for God’s people all across America. Not just in his district. He was never complacent, for he knew that without clarity of purpose and a steadfast faith, and the dogged determination demanded by our liberty, the promise of this nation can wither. Complacency, he knew, was not only corrosive for our collective lives, but for our individual lives.
It has been remarked that Elijah was a kind man. I tell my daughters — and I have to say, listening to Elijah’s daughters speak, that got me choked up. I am sure those of you who have sons feel the same way — but there is something about daughters and their fathers. And I was thinking I would want my daughters to know how much I love them, but I would also want them to know that being a strong man includes being kind. That 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.
I was sitting here and I was just noticing the “honorable” Elijah E. Cummings. You know, this is a title that we confer on all kinds of people who get elected to public office. We are supposed to introduce them as “honorable.” But Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office. There’s a difference.
There is a difference if you were honorable and treated others honorably. Outside the limelight. On the side of a road. In a quiet moment, counseling somebody you work with. Letting your daughters know you love them.
You know, as president, I knew I could always count on Elijah being honorable and doing the right thing. And people have talked about his voice. There is something about his voice. It just made you feel better. You know, there are some people that have that deep baritone, a prophetic voice. And when it was good times and we achieved victories together, that voice and that laugh was a gift. But you needed it more during the tough times, when the path ahead looked crooked, when obstacles abounded. When I entertained doubts — or I saw those who were in the fight start to waver, that is when Elijah’s voice mattered most.
Once during my presidency, when the economy still looked like it might plunge into depression, when the health care bill was pronounced dead in Congress, I would watch Elijah rally his colleagues. “The cost of doing nothing isn’t nothing,” he would say, and folks would remember why they entered into public service. “Our children are the living messengers we send to a future we will never see,” he would say, and he would remind all of us that our time is too short not to fight for what’s good and what is true, and what is best in America.
“200 years to 300 years from now,” he would say, “people will look back at this moment and they will ask questions. What did you do?” And hearing him, we would be reminded that it falls upon each of us to give voice to the voiceless and comfort to the sick, and opportunity to those not born to it, and to preserve and nurture our democracy.
Elijah Cummings was a man of noble and good heart. His parents and his faith planted the seeds of hope and love and compassion and righteousness in that good soil of his. He has harvested all the crops that he could, for the Lord has now called Elijah home, to give his humble, faithful servant rest. And it now falls on us to continue his work, so that other young boys and girls from Baltimore, across Maryland, across the United States, and around the world might too have a chance to grow and to flourish.
That’s how we will honor him. That’s how we will remember him. That’s what he would hope for.
May God bless the memory of the very honorable Elijah Cummings. And may God bless this city and the state in this nation that he loved. God bless you. Thank you.