Ironies abound in the remarkable life and legacy of Louis Stokes. From his humble beginning in Cleveland, he became a congressman on the House Appropriations Committee, overseeing the allocation of billions of dollars. Once as a soldier on a lunch stop in Memphis, he watched German POWs receive better treatment than Black troops.
He won his congressional seat by defeating an ally in a district they helped create. His ironic but fruitful life came to an end Tuesday, Aug. 18, at his home in a Cleveland suburb. Stokes was 90 and had battled lung and brain cancer.
“He was one of our most prominent and influential alumni,” said Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Dean Craig M. Boise. “Throughout his life, he exemplified the law school’s motto: ‘Learn Law. Live Justice.’”
Stokes learned law, and throughout his long years as an attorney and congressman, he applied it as judiciously as possible, even when met with severe opposition or disagreement. His reputation as a thoughtful and fair legislator was never more in the spotlight than during his stint as chair of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. The panel’s investigation of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decided that both may have involved conspiracies, contradicting the findings of other commissions, including the Warren Commission and the FBI.
These were headline moments, but to Stokes, they paled in comparison to his work on the Appropriations Committee. “It’s the only committee to be on,” he said of the Appropriations Committee. “All the rest is window dressing.”
A product of the Cleveland projects, Stokes, as a member of the committee, allocated billions of dollars each year to housing and development projects, job placement programs and health clinics. Also, he helped dispense funds through other agencies or subcommittees.
Born Feb. 23, 1925, in Cleveland, Stokes and his brother, Carl, were raised in the housing projects after the death of their father in 1928. Their mother, Louise Stone Stokes, worked as a maid to care for them.
Stokes was 18 when he enlisted in the Army, serving there until 1946. During the war he encountered the racism that changed his life. The incident in Memphis, in which German prisoners of war were allowed to eat in a dining room next to whites while the African-American soldiers were seated behind a curtain, was a turning point.
It was the first time, he said, that the racism “really hit me.”
Out of the service, Stokes attended Case Western Reserve University at night while working in the Cleveland office of the Veterans Administration. An excellent student, he was later accepted into the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. He received his law degree from the college in 1953; his brother had received his from the college three years earlier. The brother attorneys started their own law firm and began handling civil rights cases.
In 1965, the firm was working on behalf of the local branch of the NAACP and helped to challenge the Ohio Legislature’s congressional redistricting that diluted the Black vote in Cleveland. Stokes, with the assistance of Charles Lucas, a Black Republican, wrote the brief that led to a Supreme Court decision to allow the creation of Ohio’s first majority Black district.
His brother insisted that he seek to represent the 21st District in 1968. In the race, he defeated his old friend and colleague Lucas. He would hold the position for a generation.
“Lou leaves behind an indelible legacy in the countless generations of young leaders the he inspired,” said President Barack Obama.
A year before his victory, Carl had won an election as Cleveland’s first Black mayor, and it, too, was not without irony because he was the great-grandson of a slave who defeated Seth C. Taft, the grandson of a president, even though whites at that time constituted two-thirds of the city’s population. Carl Stokes died at 68 in 1996.
Stokes was once more at the center of the news cycle in 1987, when the House Select Committee investigated the Iran-Contra affair, particularly Lt. Col. Oliver North’s significant role. North, working at the National Security Council, was involved in the secretive sale of weapons to Iran and the diversion of the funds acquired to the anti-Communist or contra rebels in Nicaragua.
North told the committee that his actions stemmed from his patriotism, Stokes retorted, “Others, too, love America just as much as you do.” As part of his sentence in the subsequent trial, North did his community service in a housing project in Washington, D.C. In 1991, all charges against him were dismissed.
If the succeeding years were less eventful for the representative, they do not diminish the service he extended to his constituents.
In 1988, Stokes, who retired from Congress in 1999, established the Louis Stokes Foundation Fund for minority students seeking law degrees in memory of his mother.
Stokes once said, “I’m going to keep on denouncing inequities in the system, but I’m going to work within it. To go outside the system would be to deny myself, to deny my own existence. I’ve beaten the system; I’ve proved it can be done.” A kind of final irony to his illustrious career.
Besides his wife, Jay Francis, who he married in 1960, Stokes is survived by his son, Chuck; their daughter, Lori, an anchor on WABC-TV in New York City; two other daughters from an earlier marriage, which ended in divorce, Shelley Stokes-Hammond and Angela Stokes; and seven grandchildren.