NOEL KING, HOST:
Congressman Elijah Cummings, the longtime Maryland Democrat, died yesterday at the age of 68. He was born the son of sharecroppers, and he rose to become the dean of Maryland's black elected officials and a leader in Congress. He's remembered as someone who fought relentlessly for his hometown of Baltimore. NPR's Brakkton Booker went there to talk with residents about what Cummings meant to the city.
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BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: A brass quartet is playing "Amazing Grace" in downtown Baltimore. Members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are set up just outside the district office of Elijah Cummings. It's here I meet Linda Barksdale, a Baltimore resident who says she was devastated to learn the longtime congressman had died.
LINDA BARKSDALE: You know, he was just a great man, the way he talked, the way he listened to people and the way he was there for everybody.
BOOKER: Cummings was born in Baltimore in 1951. He was one of seven children, and his parents were sharecroppers and worked the same land their ancestors were enslaved on. Cummings did his undergrad at Howard University and would go on to law school at the University of Maryland. After practicing law for a short time, he turned his attention to politics and never looked back.
Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke was a high school classmate of Cummings.
KURT SCHMOKE: I thought that Elijah would make a great mayor of the city and possibly the governor of the state. But he enjoyed being a lawmaker.
BOOKER: Cummings was elected to Maryland's House of Delegates in 1982, eventually becoming Maryland's first black speaker pro tem. By 1996, residents of Baltimore sent Cummings to Congress. He stayed in that seat for more than 20 years.
SCHMOKE: And there was something about Congress that kind of kept him grounded in his neighborhood and the community. And he just really loved it.
BOOKER: That view of Cummings is shared by Charles Streeter, who I meet in the Hollins Market section of West Baltimore.
CHARLES STREETER: He defended his city. He defended the people of his city. You know what I mean? So, you know, what more can you ask?
BOOKER: Streeter is referring to President Trump's tweet storm in July where he denigrated the city, calling it disgusting and a rat- and rodent-infested mess. Cummings fired back at the president, saying he goes home to his district daily. And each morning he wakes up to go and fight for his neighbors.
Several weeks after, in a speech, Congressman Cummings invited President Trump for a personal tour of his 7th congressional district.
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ELIJAH CUMMINGS: I want him to come. I want him to come and look at my entire city. I'll ride with him for hours if he has to.
BOOKER: In that moment, Streeter says Cummings showed tremendous strength and grit that reflects many residents in Baltimore.
STREETER: You defend where you come from, you know? You take no guff - you know what I mean? - no matter what. If it's the president of the United States, if you're wrong, you're wrong.
BOOKER: On Capitol Hill, Cummings was beloved by lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he was heading one of the three panels leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
T.J. Smith is a community activist and former spokesperson for the Baltimore City Police Department.
TJ SMITH: His voice was powerful. He had that voice of hope. He was on the front lines trying to bridge the gap.
BOOKER: Smith remembers Cummings during the 2015 uprisings in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody. Cummings - one of the most powerful members of Congress - was on the streets with a bullhorn calling for calm. Here's a clip courtesy of MSNBC.
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CUMMINGS: Please, I beg you. I'm not asking. I'm begging. It's very important that we keep the peace. We got to keep the peace.
BOOKER: Jackie Copeland is the executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. She says Cummings embodied many characteristics of icons of the civil rights movement.
JACKIE COPELAND: He carried himself like some of our heroes, like Martin Luther King, like John Lewis. We recognize their importance in our struggles.
BOOKER: Elijah Cummings, the dean of Maryland's black political delegation, fought to the very end to make those struggles a little easier to endure. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Baltimore.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "A SECRET SOCIETY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.