Rep. Louis Stokes came back to the neighborhood yesterday, surrounded by family, preachers, politicians and old friends, to announce his retirement after 30 years as their man in Washington.Looking out at the overflow crowd of well-wishers at the Carl B. Stokes Social Services Mall, a big building on Woodland Ave. named after his brother, Stokes said he felt comfortable in their company and in the old neighborhood where he and Carl grew up.
Just north, off Central Ave. on E. 69th St., is the yellow shingle house where the Stokes boys spent their earliest years with their widowed mother, Louise. The family was poor. Stokes’ grandmother slept in one bedroom and the boys and their mother slept in the other until Lou was almost 13 and Carl 11. A potbelly stove was the only source of heat.
A few blocks west of the social services mall is the Outh- waite Homes public-housing complex, a labyrinth of identical brick buildings stretching for several blocks. Louise Stokes moved the family there so the boys could have rooms of their own. Lou kept up his paper route in the old neighborhood, commuting on the bicycle his grandmother bought for him.
“This was a tough neighborhood when Carl and I were growing up,” Stokes told the crowd yesterday.
“Still is,” said a voice in back, drawing laughter.
“Many of the boys Carl and I grew up with wound up in the penitentiary or wound up dead,” Stokes went on. “I see the Rev. Lester Galbreath there. He’s one of the lucky ones who escaped. I never did think you would be a minister.”
“Our mama was a strong lady,” Stokes said. “She didn’t have much education – eighth grade. But she believed in education. She drilled that in our heads. … Carl and I strove to get her approval. As much as we accomplished, she never sat down and said, `Oh, that’s great.’ So we kept trying to get her approval, trying to do more. I guess she knew what she was doing.’
Stokes, who will be 73 next month, fought to control his emotions as he rose to speak after Mayor Michael R. White ended his introduction by saying, “Congressman Stokes, we love you.”
Cleveland’s political history – past, present and future – filled the room. Arnold Pinkney and Russell Adrine, who managed Stokes’ first campaign in 1968, were there. So were many of the politicians he has fought with and against over the years, and a younger generation of politicians who look upon Stokes’ retirement as their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win a seat in Congress.
“My decision not to seek a 16th term does not mean that I’m retiring today,” Stokes playfully admonished his eager would-be successors. “My intention is to complete this term. … I have tried to set a standard of excellence. I have tried to represent this district with dignity, excellence and integrity. The district must never accept less.”
Applause punctuated with shouted “amens” answered him.
Loss ended fun of work
Publicly, Stokes gave the usual reasons for retiring: time for new blood, quit while you’re ahead, spend more time with the family, pursue other interests. Privately, he said the fun has gone out of politics for him since his brother died in April 1996.
“As I survey it, I think about the things that Carl and I did politically, what the two of us have been about. We used to talk every day. We could run things by one another. We could think and strategize on political issues. I guess without him here, it really has taken away a lot of what I enjoy about politics. It’s not the same.”
Growing up, it was Lou who set the example for Carl. Lou who went to work first shining shoes, then as a porter at a downtown store, and then found a job for Carl. Lou who went into the Army in World War II, followed by Carl. Lou who came home from service determined to get a college education, prodding Carl to finish high school at age 21 and go to college, too. Lou who got a law degree and coaxed his younger brother into starting a firm together.
“My dream was that Carl and I would establish the top black law firm in America,” Lou said. “Carl had no such idea. He was going to utilize the law for his political career.”
And so he did. While Lou pursued his dream of being a top criminal lawyer, Carl rapidly climbed the ladder of politics, reaching a pinnacle when, in 1967, he became the first black elected mayor of a major American city.
That same year, Lou successfully argued a case titled Terry vs. Ohio, a landmark case setting guidelines on when police can stop and frisk people. Thirty years later, the case stands as one of the most important decisions the U.S. Supreme court has ever handed down.
Escaping brother’s shadow
But people hardly noticed Lou’s achievement. Carl’s election put him on the cover of Time magazine and made him an international celebrity.
Reporting the results of the 21st Congressional District Democratic primary in May 1968, The Plain Dealer’s story began, “Louis Stokes, campaigning on the magic of his brother’s image, swept to a surprisingly strong victory last night. …”
“I realized I had to live with being Carl Stokes’ brother until I could establish my own independent image,” Lou said. “I knew that it would take some time.”
Lou Stokes put in the time, 30 years worth. And somewhere along the way, he is not sure exactly when, people began accepting him on his own terms. Shortly before Carl’s death, it was Lou’s accumulated influence and prominence in the Democratic Party that paved the way for Carl to finish his career as a U.S. ambassador.
“Later on in life, Carl got a bang out of the fact that people would come up to him and ask, `Are you Lou Stokes’ brother?’ Lou recalled, smiling at the memory.
Pondering his political legacy, Stokes said, “When I started this journey, I realized that I was the first black American ever to hold this position in this state. I had to write the book. There was no book. Basically what I said to myself was that I was going to set a standard of excellence that would give any successor something to shoot for.”
Served constituents proudly
Stokes is proud of his constituent service, the bedrock of a successful congressional career. He said his rule was that any constituent who insisted on talking to him on the phone or in person would get the opportunity.
He used his position on the Appropriations Committee, the body that decides how billions of federal tax dollars will be disbursed every year, to bring many millions back to the district, the Cleveland area and the state.
In gratitude, the community has honored Stokes by naming after him a street, a bridge, a rapid-transit station, a middle school auditorium, a Head Start center, a wing of the Cleveland Public Library, a health center at Case Western Reserve University and a telecommunications center at Cuyahoga Community College.
Stokes carved a national reputation by serving as chairman of the Select Committee on Assassinations, which investigated the murders of President Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Twenty years later, no one has been able to refute any of the findings of our committee,” he said proudly.
He earned the respect of his colleagues by taking on the thankless task of heading the Ethics Committee. Under his chairmanship, the committee investigated several scandals, including allegations against fellow congressmen for taking bribes, and for having sex with underage employees of the House. The committee also looked into the finances of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro and her husband when she was running for vice president.
Stokes’ even-handed approach to sensitive investigations led to appointments to the Intelligence Committee, to a special committee investigating the Iran-contra connection and to the team that conducted a congressional inquiry following the U.S. invasion of Grenada.
His conduct in office caused embarrassment only twice – once after Maryland police charged him with drunken driving and he got tangled up in his own words trying to talk his way out of it, and once in the wake of the House bank scandal, when it was revealed he had 551 overdrafts. Neither incident hurt him politically, as he strung together 15 consecutive winning campaigns.
Tireless black activist
Over the years, as Ohio’s delegation was reduced from 24 seats to 19, Stokes’ district expanded to include more and more white suburban constituents in addition to the mostly black East Side of Cleveland. Stokes said he is proud of the way he served all his constituents, no matter their race, and his 85 percent victory in the last election proves people respect him for it.
But he does not apologize for a career that centers on advocating and defending the needs of blacks. “Every ethnic group that hopes to pull themselves into the mainstream of America must have political and economic power,” he said. “My job was to be able to put together political power on their behalf, and I’ve tried to do that.”
The roots of Stokes’ black activism go back to his Army days in the mid-1940s. As an 18-year-old recruit, he spent his tour of duty mostly in the segregated South. Stokes learned first-hand about the two Americas – one white, one black – and dedicated his life to helping merge them.
“I was inducted at Fort Hayes in Columbus,” he said. “I remember my mother telling me, `When you go to Columbus you can’t eat in those restaurants downtown. Don’t you go down there and try to eat. You’ll just get yourself in trouble.’
On the way to Camp Stewart in Georgia, the troop train stopped in Memphis, Tenn. Stokes’ unit, made up entirely of black soldiers, got off the train to eat in a cafeteria.
“All the white soldiers were seated in one place,” Stokes recalled. “In another section close to where the white soldiers were, they had some German prisoners of war. Then on the other side of the German prisoners, they drew a curtain. They put us behind the curtain. I sat there and realized German prisoners of war could sit with white soliders, but here we were, in the same uniform, same country, and we had to sit on the other side of the curtain.”
Stokes was in Seattle preparing to be shipped overseas when the war in Japan ended. He was grateful to go home and resume his life. His heart wasn’t in fighting and possibly dying in an Army that treated him and others of his race like second-class citizens.
After Carl’s election as mayor and Lou’s election to Congress, the brothers formed the 21st Congressional District Caucus, a political organization that went to war against the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, demanding a fair share of political power and patronage for blacks.
In Washington, Stokes was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, which forced the predominantly white Congress to listen to the needs of its black members and their constituents.
He is proud to be the first black ever elected to Congress from Ohio, yet it galls him that he is still the only black the state has ever sent to the House.
“When I first went to Congress, it was a great honor,” he said. “Thirty years later, to think that this state still has never elected but one black to the United States Congress. …” He named the three black congressmen from Illinois, five or six from California, two from Missouri until the last election. “Even Georgia has two,” he said.
“I don’t think it shows much progress in this state that 30 years later I’m still the only black that’s ever been elected to the United States Congress. I think of it more as a tragedy than an honor. Certainly in this whole state there must be some other black person capable of serving in the Congress.”
Stokes talked privately about his family dynasty coming to an end and his wish that whoever succeeds him would pursue the same goals. He recalled a recent speech he gave at East Technical High School, where he talked about how he and Carl had educated themselves and worked themselves out of the projects.
“When I finished, a young fellow came up to me and said, `Mr. Stokes, me and my brother live in the projects, and me and my brother are going to be just like you and your brother.’ That really made me feel good,’ the congressman said.
Stokes, who underwent a heart bypass operation in 1996, said he is as healthy and energetic as the day he took office. When his time in Congress is up, he’s thinking about writing a book – maybe two – and lecturing on college campuses.
First, however, there will be the adjustment to everyday life after 30 years as a VIP. No more flying back and forth between Washington and Cleveland every week, sometimes twice a week. No more glad-handing and rubber chicken dinners. No more, “Can I get that for you, Mr. Congressman?”
Jay Stokes, the congressman’s wife of 38 years, said she will be glad to have her man at home.
“But if he intends to spend much time around the house, he better learn to cook,” she said.