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Politics & Government

Louis Stokes, Ohio's First African-American Congressman, Dies

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Louis Stokes was Ohio's first African-American congressman and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He died yesterday at the age of 90 at his home in a Cleveland suburb. He and his brother, Carl, who died in 1996, were political giants in the state. From member station WCPN, Nick Castele has this remembrance.

NICK CASTELE, BYLINE: Louis Stokes served 15 terms in Congress. Friends and colleagues remember him as a gentleman and a jovial man with a big smile who fought for the interests of some of the poorest neighborhoods in America. Stokes was born in Cleveland. His mother, Louise, had moved north from Georgia. When her husband died, she raised Louis and his brother, Carl, on her own, cleaning homes and living in public housing. In a 2007 interview, Stokes described one night when his mother was sick. He said he took her hand to comfort her.

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LOUIS STOKES: And as I felt those hard, calloused hands from scrubbing people's floors in order to give me an education, I began to understand what she was talking about when she said get something in your head so you don't have to work with your hands like I've worked with my hands.

CASTELE: Stokes graduated high school, served in a segregated Army unit during World War II and attended college on the G.I. Bill. He went to law school and worked as an attorney for the NAACP. There, he took the case defending a man who'd been stopped and searched by Cleveland police. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Stokes lost, and the court's ruling set the precedent for stop-and-frisk police searches. Louis Stokes was more successful in another case, challenging redistricting in Ohio.

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STOKES: It took all of the black population and split it around the county in such a way as to dilute a black base in that 21st District.

CASTELE: The subsequent Supreme Court decision led to a majority black congressional district. Stokes thought his brother, Carl, who had won election as of mayor of Cleveland, would run for the seat. When he declined, Louis ran for the House instead, becoming Ohio's first black congressman. Stokes and other black representatives organized the Congressional Black Caucus to fight for their interests. Leonard Moore is a professor at the University of Texas who studied the Stokes brothers. He says that was revolutionary.

LEONARD MOORE: So although they were a small group - you know what I mean? - they held considerable influence. And in many ways, they became sort of the de facto voice of black America.

CASTELE: In Congress, Stokes chaired the House Select Committee that investigated the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., criticizing the FBI for its handling of the case but clearing the government of involvement. In an interview with NPR, Stokes stood by the committee's findings that it's possible there was a conspiracy behind King's killing.

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STOKES: I believe that our findings in which we say that there was the possibility of a conspiracy - I rely upon that. I adopt that as a part of our findings, but I also feel very strongly that James Earl Ray was the assassin.

CASTELE: As House ethics chair, Stokes helped probe the Abscam scandal which resulted in convictions of multiple elected officials. Congresswoman Marcia Fudge now represents the same district Stokes did.

MARCIA FUDGE: He was talking about things like health disparities before anyone else was talking about them. He was talking about building up neighborhoods and was bringing resources to this community to do it.

CASTELE: Despite his accomplishments, Stokes received reminders of the pressure placed on African-Americans to explain themselves. In 1991, a Capitol police officer temporarily refused to let him into his office garage, according to news reports from the time. President Obama today remembered Stokes in a statement, calling him a passionate voice for those less fortunate. According to his family, Louis Stokes died peacefully yesterday with his wife of 55 years at his side. For NPR News, I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.