Born February 23, 1925; raised in Cleveland, OH; son of Charles and Louise (Stone) Stokes; married Jeanette Francis Jay, August 21, 1960; children: Shelley, Louis C., Angela, Lorene.
Education: Case Western Reserve University, 1946-48; Cleveland Marshall Law School, J.D., 1953.
Worked for the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Cleveland, c. 1946-48; Stokes, Character, Terry and Perry (law firm), Cleveland, attorney, 1954-68; member of U.S. House of Representatives (Democrat), 1968--; cofounder, Congressional Black Caucus; chairman, Select Committee on Assassinations, 1977-79; member of Iran-Contra Investigating Committee and House Ethics Committee. Trustee, Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943-46.
The thrust of Louis Stokes's career in the U.S. House of Representatives has been to serve and defend those who may not be able to do so for themselves. Stokes has spoken out time and again for the rights of the poor, especially those in urban America. He has sponsored legislation to help people of color enter the intelligence community, fought for adequate housing for the poor, and, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, oversaw the passage of the Disadvantaged Minority Health Improvement Act of 1989.
One of Stokes's most eloquent statements of his mission came early in his career in the House. While the rest of the country was celebrating the first man on the moon, Stokes's feet were firmly on the ground; on the day the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon in July of 1969, it was Stokes who challenged Congress to remember the forgotten. He said, as quoted by Christopher Maurine in his book Black Americans in Congress, "Today is a good day for us to reexamine our national priorities, to evaluate the posture of the President of the United States and the goals which he has set for people here on earth.... How, Mr. Speaker, for instance does this Nation justify sending a man to the moon while we are still studying hunger...?" In pointing out the irony of the nation's ability to travel through space while remaining unable to clothe, house, and feed many of its people, Stokes also wondered, as quoted by Maurine, about the cost of the space triumph--funded by a country faced with "joblessness, homelessness, poverty, ignorance, blight, pollution, racism, discrimination, and a myriad of unsolved domestic problems, which make life on earth miserable for many Americans."
Louis Stokes knows about poverty, having grown up in an impoverished part of Cleveland. As was the case with many poor young men of the day, Stokes's rise out of poverty was facilitated by the U.S. Army, in which he served from 1943-46. Following his discharge from the Army, Stokes worked for the Cleveland branch of the United States Department of the Treasury during the day and attended Case Western Reserve University at night on the GI Bill. Stokes received his law degree in 1953 and began practicing in Cleveland.
By the time of his run for Congress in 1968, Louis Stokes was the most prominent civil rights lawyer in Cleveland. He also served as the main political advisor to his brother, Carl Stokes, mayor of Cleveland and the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city. His brother's popularity helped Stokes achieve a decisive win in the Democratic congressional primary in 1968.
But what really made the difference to Stokes's bid for Congress was the United States Supreme Court. In 1964 the high court ruled that congressional districts should be as equivalent as possible in population. That made the sitting representative, white Democratic Congressman Charles A. Vanik, vulnerable. Until that time, Cleveland's east district--part of the 21st congressional district of Ohio--was 40 percent black; when the Ohio State Legislature reapportioned the state, the 21st congressional district became roughly 65 percent black. Vanik decided to run for re-election in another district, and for the first time, it looked as though the 21st district would be represented by a black congressman.
Though his party lost the 1968 presidential election to Richard M. Nixon, Stokes handily won the congressional general election. But the new representative of the 21st district faced some serious problems: the residents of his district had the lowest median income in Ohio and the lowest in the Midwest. Stokes immediately perceived his role as champion of the underclass, and that remained his goal into his third decade in Congress.
Early in his House career, Stokes battled a number of conservative movements, such as the Nixon Administration's attempts to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled blacks to take full advantage of their voting rights. In refuting Attorney General John Mitchell's arguments on the floor of the House, Stokes asked members to consider what had happened in the Mississippi elections in 1969. "Many did not register," he said, according to Black Americans in Congress, "because of bombing threats. Others could not because of intentionally shortened registration hours or deceptive practices which gave the voters the impression they were registering when they were not. Many potential black candidates were purposely given false information on how to file." Then, Stokes recalled, on the election day itself, "black poll watchers were not allowed near the polling places, the token number of black election officials was not permitted to assist the blind or the handicapped, and white officials attempted to influence illiterates not to vote for black candidates. In one town, an armed deputy harassed black citizens until many gave up without voting."
After early assignments on the House Internal Security and Education and Labor Committees, Stokes eventually received some highly prestigious appointments. In 1977 Stokes was appointed chair of the Select Committee on Assassinations, the body that investigated the killings of President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The first black to head a congressional investigating committee with such a high profile nationwide, Stokes spoke out against the Warren Commission Report, the official government study detailing the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. With the release of American director Oliver Stone's controversial film JFK in 1991, speculation surrounding the Kennedy assassination began afresh. In a front-page story in the New York Times, Stokes said he would ask Congress to order the release of government documents on the assassination and that these documents would strengthen Stone's--and others'--claims of the involvement of some organized crime figures in the murder.
In 1987 and 1988 Stokes chaired the House Intelligence Committee and was a member of the Iran-Contra Investigating Committee, which examined the role of Colonel Oliver North and the White House in dealing arms to Iran in order to fund the Nicaraguan Contras (rebels fighting the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua). Stokes was critical of the role of then-President Ronald Reagan in this scandal and, in a July 19, 1987, appearance on NBC-TV's Meet the Press, stated his position very clearly, noting that it would be a "very serious mistake" for President Reagan to pardon Colonel North, and that it was President Reagan's actions that initiated the congressional investigations in the first place.
Stokes was named to head the troubled House Ethics Committee in early 1991. At the time, the Committee was still reeling from several distasteful episodes--Representative Barney Frank's 1990 association with a male prostitute, for one--and Stokes was thought by the leadership to be capable of sound and sensible guidance. Stokes's record on House ethics votes is fairly lenient, something he freely acknowledges. "My whole career has been one of fighting for the underdog," he told Congressional Quarterly. "I'm sure that's reflected in my votes. But I think that even more than that, my record for being fair is what makes people respect me."
As new scandal broke in the House in 1992--it was revealed that many representatives had accumulated numerous and sizeable overdrafts on their checking accounts at the House Bank--it looked as if Stokes was about to confront the biggest challenge in all of his years in the House of Representatives. And with George Bush's White House and conservatives in Congress debating revisions to the Voting Rights Act and attempting to curtail affirmative action (an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women) and various social programs for which Stokes had long fought, the unassuming congressman was sure to be called upon yet again to act as a voice for the disenfranchised in America.
Distinguished service award, Cleveland NAACP; certificate of appreciation, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; honorary degrees from Wilberforce University, Shaw University, Livingstone College, Morehouse College, and Meharry College of Medicine.
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Last Updated: 8/27/10