INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Hoosiers mourned the death of a congressman and civil rights activist whose 2005 visit to Indianapolis had a lasting impact on hundreds.
Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings died Thursday morning from complications related to longstanding health challenges, his office said. He was 68.
The Baltimore native was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 1996. The 12-term congressman served as chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which oversees the federal government and all of its agencies.
Cummings was known as a passionate orator who fought for worker rights, voting rights and the needs of inner-city residents.
He spoke at a youth service in April 2005 at New Era Church on the north side of Indianapolis.
Dian Foreman, the former youth ministry leader who helped arrange the event, recalled how people packed the church to hear him speak.
“It changed my life,” Foreman told News 8. “I still remember every detail of that evening. It was definitely my most memorable experience there.”
Cummings told the congregation a moving story about how he rose from humble beginnings and persevered despite countless obstacles.
“I’ll never forget his story about how he was in the ‘special class’ at school,” said Foreman. “When it time for him to go to high school, he was told to meet with his school counselor to plan out his classes. When he sat down with the counselor, [she] basically said, ‘What would you like to be?’ He said, ‘Well, I would like to be an attorney.'”
The counselor told him he was slow to learn and spoke poorly, and advised him to follow in his parents’ footsteps instead of pursuing a career in law. Cummings was the son of former sharecroppers.
He earned a Bachelor’s degree in political science from Howard University in 1973. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1976, and was admitted to the Maryland Bar that year.
Cummings had shared the anecdote before; in Indianapolis, he revealed how he encountered the school counselor years after she urged him to rethink his ambitions.
“On his very first day of work as a licensed attorney, he was alone in the office,” said Foreman. “Somebody comes in and they need help. They’re saying, ‘My attorney has not shown up. I need somebody to represent me.”
Cummings eventually agreed to represent the woman and won her case.
“As they’re leaving the court house, he turns to the person and says, ‘You don’t remember me do you?’ And the person, she turns around and says, ‘No, I don’t.’ It was the very same high school counselor who told him he could not be an attorney,” Foreman told News 8.
She credited the congressman’s story with empowering dozens of Indianapolis youth to “never shrink” in the face of adversity or uncertainty.
“His message that night was ‘Don’t shrink,'” Foreman recalled. “I will never forget that. Don’t let somebody tell you what you have to be.”
Cummings is survived by his wife, Maryland Democratic Party Chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and three children.