The first thing you see when you walk into Ohio congressman Louis Stokes' office in the Raybum House Office Building on Capitol Hill is that big color photograph, as wide as the reception desk before it.
It's what you see before you notice the 20 honorary doctorates, or the scads of awards — here a National Bar Association Hall of Fame plaque, there a Martin Luther King Freedom Award, everywhere a kudo — or the framed issue of Time with his brother Carl's picture on the cover, or the photos of the congressman with Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth, Anwar Sadat, the 13 other charter members of the Congressional Black Caucus or any of the half-dozen American presidents who've come and gone while Louis Stokes has come and stayed. Spend nearly 30 years in Congress and a person picks up a memento or two. Million.
But it's that photo — four feet wide and three feet long — that you see first.
It's a shot of a packed congressional hearing room, with a hundred or so people caught in remarkably sharp focus. In the center is Lt. Col. Oliver North, at attention and in full dress uniform, being sworn in to testify before the House/Senate committee to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. At far left — not only the only African-American among the 15 House and Senate members on the dais but also just about the only African-American in the room — is Louis Stokes.
Of all the moments in his career that Stokes might have chosen to feature — his chairmanship of the Assassinations Committee; his chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee; his long tenure on the Ethics Committee; his status as the ranking Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee; having a street in Cleveland named after him; his election as Ohio's first African-American member of Congress; his 15 straight election victories, never claiming less than 69 percent of the vote; his association with every American political and civil rights leader of the last 30 years — why this moment?
"When I first saw it," Stokes says, "I was so struck by the fact that this fella had captured in a photograph the electricity of that moment. The electricity in that room just shot through everybody there. ... The lighting, the expression on everybody's faces, everything. That photo captures that moment in history."
Yes, but why that moment in history?
Stokes pauses. He is a famously thoughtful man. Everyone you talk to about him describes him as either "careful," "studious," "thoughtful" or all three.
"That moment," he says, "has everything."
The moment, he says, is a rich one because of what's about to come, a few days hence, when Stokes, who as a young man had not suffered gladly the segregation of the troops he endured while serving in World War II, would deliver his famous skewering of North for having so boastfully brandished his patriotism, that last refuge of a scoundrel.
The moment, Stokes says, is a rich one because it captures what has so often been the niche in history of brothers Louis and Carl Stokes, known to family and old friends as Billy and Brother: to have lived a life in which their job titles have often been prefaced by the phrase "the first African-American." In which, just as often, it could be prefaced by "the only African-American."
The moment, Stokes says, is a rich one because it showcases an opportunity for a man who never wanted to be a politician to go back to his first passion: the law. He is, after all, a man who took three cases to the U.S. Supreme Court and won them all — including the one that, indirectly, sent him to Congress in the first place. "Any time I'm in an atmosphere where I can interrogate people the way I used to be able to do in the courtroom ..." Stokes begins, pauses, then grins and positively glows. "That, to me, is great fulfillment."
He laughs again. Louis Stokes is, by reputation, a tough man to interview. Get him talking about where he came from, though, and he's the warmest guy going.
But most of all, the moment is a rich one, Stokes says, "because it's an opportunity for me to show the public what I felt. It gives people who walk in this office a glimpse of what it feels like to be there."
"In Congress." He pauses. Then he smiles. "And — when things come together, the way they do in that photograph — in history."
"LOUIS STOKES," says John Coyne, mayor of Brooklyn and 12-year chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic party, "is without a doubt one of the finest public officials I've ever met in my 50 years as mayor. He represents everybody — West Side, East Side, black, white, all of Ohio, all of America. He's our congressman-at-large."
"He's 'The Dean,' " says Mary Rose Oakar, who served in Congress with Stokes for 15 years and calls him "a brother."
"To me, he's just Billy," says Venerine Branham, a retired Cleveland high-school principal and a friend of the Stokeses from their childhoods in the projects. "That's what we all called him back then. He was so studious, we always knew he'd be somebody. But, of course, we could have never dreamed that one of us could come so far and do so much."
"Lou Stokes is a practical politician," says congressman Dennis Kucinich, whose 1977 election as mayor was a result of the alliance forged with Stokes' 21st District (now 11th District) Caucus — what many people call the closest thing Ohio politics has left to a machine. "He understands what the possibilities are, what the limitations are. And he's always out there fighting for his constituents.
"What people don't understand about Lou Stokes is the extent to which he's had a powerful impact on Congress," adds Kucinich, who's just starting to understand this himself.
WHEN ANYBODY made reference to the baby my mother was carrying," says Louis Stokes, "they'd call me 'Little Billy.' When I was born, they named me Louis, but they kept on calling me Billy. To this day, there are people in my family that if you say 'Louis Stokes' or 'Carl Stokes,' they don't know who you're talking about. But if you say 'Billy Stokes' or 'Brother Stokes,' well, they know it's us."
Two years after Billy Stokes entered the world, Brother Stokes was born. Two years after that, their father, Charles, a laundry worker, died at age 28 of acute peritonitis.
Louise Stokes and her sons found themselves living in a rickety two-family house on East 69th Street, pounding tin cans flat and nailing them over the rat holes, keeping not-quite-warm at night by sleeping in one small, lumpy bed, with bricks heated in an erratic coal stove. During the day, Louise Stokes worked as a servant in those big houses in Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, scrubbing floors and washing clothes and serving cocktails and changing the diapers of other people's babies.
"What drives Carl and me came from my mother," says Stokes, who still catches himself talking about his brother, who died last year, in present tense. "Her passion was for her boys to get an education. She drove that in our heads all the time. More than that, we always saw her work."
He says when he thinks of his mother, he always thinks of her rough, callused hands, and how they got that way, and for whose benefit.
"What we missed," he says, "was her not being able to be home with us, because some of the domestic jobs she had, she had to stay on the job. She'd go to work on Monday and wouldn't come home until Friday night."
Billy Stokes was the man of the house from the age of 4, a role he immediately took seriously and continued to do so throughout the lives of his mother and brother. Though only two years older than Brother, Billy looked after him more like a father figure than a big brother.
In 1938, Louise Stokes put her name on the waiting list for the country's first federally funded housing project, in the Portland-Outhwaite area. "The day we moved in was pure wonder," wrote Carl Stokes in his autobiography Promises of Power. "A sink with hot and cold running water, a place where you could wash clothes with a washing machine, an actual refrigerator. And we learned what it was to live in dependable warmth."
Venerine Branham was 4 years old when the Stokeses moved in a couple doors down. "Billy was like a big brother to a lot of us, not just Carl," says Branham. He would watch her after school, ask if she'd done her homework.
The projects were a night/day improvement for the Stokes family, but it wasn't like the day was all sunshine. Many of the women were single mothers; the men who were there had a rough time finding work. "In those days," says Stokes, "you found more educated blacks in the post office than in any other location, because they could get hired there. Lawyers were working down there. Men who were trained in all kinds of professions were working down there."
Louis Stokes tells the story now of being at an assembly at Central High School where the teachers had told them an important role model was coming to speak. It turned out to be Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. "A tap-dancer," scoffs Stokes. As if the only way a black kid could make it would be as an entertainer. But the message Billy Stokes kept getting from his real role model, his mother, a woman with only an eighth-grade education, was about the importance of learning and achievement. It turned out to be enough.
"The people in the projects," Stokes says, "were good people, decent people. They just happened to be poor people. They were very much committed to education, whether they had it or not. They wanted to see the next generation do better than they did."
A generation later, the culture of achievement fostered in those projects had produced doctors and lawyers, dentists and schoolteachers. It had produced prominent judges like Lloyd Brown, Carl Character and Theodore Williams. It had produced Carl Stokes, the first African-American big-city mayor.
A generation later, the road Louise Stokes' bus traveled from the projects to Shaker Heights had been named after her elder son. The rich people who had then called her "the help" were now calling him "our congressman."
IN THE UNDERGROUND tunnel between Congress and the Rayburn House Office Building, Louis Stokes — a 72- year-old man showing no signs of the radiation treatments he finished last year for a throat condition called severe dysplasia or the triple bypass surgery of the year before that — chooses to bypass the Members Only subway car for a brisk walk through the bottom-most hall of the halls of Congress.
"This," he says, "is where I work."
It's late in the afternoon, and today, like most of them, Stokes has been working for a long time. The day started with a near-dawn breakfast meeting, then proceeded through an Appropriations Committee hearing, an Ethics Committee hearing, a couple of grip-and-grin sessions, a working lunch and two other small meetings. He had an impromptu conversation with some East Cleveland activists who wandered into the office and demanded to talk to the congressman. The issue they wanted to discuss was a local one, but when it comes to Louis Stokes, that's not a distinction many people make.
"Back home," Stokes says, "I get more coverage for the local politics, but my real work, what I've been elected to do, is here. I'm a legislator," he says, at the end of the corridor now, punching the button to the Members Only elevator. "And, I'd like to think, by now a pretty effective one." He is a legislator who is not afraid to spread his power and leadership around. Younger Democratic congressmen — by now, pretty much all of them are younger — consider him "a good coach" (Brown's phrase, though the theme is echoed everywhere). Stokes personally introduced the Ohio Democrats around Congress and, in many cases, they owe their committee appointments to Stokes' backing. At a time in American political discourse when nastiness seems to reign, Stokes gets things done in a courtly, old-school manner. There are people who've been in politics 30 days who've made more enemies than Stokes has in 30 years.
And he is not resting on his laurels. Despite recent prevailing political winds, he's fought for public housing (without going out of his way to mention that he grew up in public housing) and for welfare recipients (without going out of his way to mention that he grew up on welfare, a child of a woman who personified the term "working poor"). In the last Congress, it was Stokes' leadership that dealt Newt Gingrich's Republican majority its first legislative defeat on any issue.
On one of the 13 appropriations bills that need to pass each year in order to run the government, the Republicans had included 17 anti-environmental riders, many added to the bill by a freshman Republican from Texas who was also the president of a pesticide company. Stokes — the ranking Democrat on the committee, a supporter of environmental issues though not exactly a leading environmentalist — led the fight to roll back the riders. After votes, revotes and procedural wrangling you'd have to be in Congress as long as Stokes to follow, Stokes won. Working on an issue that wasn't even in his kitchen, Stokes placed in the national spotlight a fact that's dogged Republicans ever since: The public is more supportive of the environment than the Contract-with-America crowd ever dreamed.
The elevator door opens. Stokes smiles and greets the elevator operator, who uses a wheelchair, by name and thanks her for letting a desperately late photographer take the Members Only elevator to Stokes' office earlier that day. The operator beams and says she was glad to do it.
Stokes also has stood up for those who — literally, this time — can't, thwarting repeated Republican attempts to get rid of the elevator operators, most of them, like this woman, handicapped.
"WHEN I FIRST joined the service," Stokes says, "I was just out of high school, and I was with a group of guys who were ready to riot, tear things up. I just could not stand the segregation, the conditions."
Imagine what it must have been like to be Louis Stokes, an 18-year-old American soldier willing and eager to defend his country, riding through the Carolinas on a train mostly full of troops — the black troops in a separate and unequal car that also carried a few Nazi prisoners of war. The train stops. Dinner. In the window of the restaurant is a sign, "Whites Only." The white Americans go in. The Nazi POWs are welcome, too. The black soldiers? Go 'round to the back door, fellas; you can buy takeout there.
What kept him from rioting?
"They wanted to reach out to me and calm me down because they saw something in me that, if they could help corral it, they could point me in the right direction."
The men spent time talking to him. Telling him what college was all about. When he told them of his dream — to do what Clarence Darrow had done for black people in supposedly hopeless cases, only to do it as a black man representing other black men — they did not tell him it couldn't happen. They told him it could.
When he was stationed in Salinas, Calif., he and some of the other soldiers would use their three-day passes to go work at the Salinas Sugar Factory. Stokes made enough money that he could send some home to his mother. He usually worked upstairs in the main part of the factory. But one day he got stuck in the hot, dank basement of the place, shoveling decomposing sugar-beet husks.
"Next to me was a man who had to be 60, 65 years of age," he remembers. "Old man. And as I was down there underground, working right next to him, I thought, I gotta get an education. I can't wind up someplace where I'm shoveling stuff."
When the war ended, Stokes came home, took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled as a full-time student in Western Reserve University's Cleveland College. But before he got started, his mother sat him down for a talk.
"Bill?" she said. "Now, you know I carried you and Carl a long time. I really need you to get a job and help me." He looked into his mother's eyes. Though she'd always preached the importance of education, the goal she'd had in mind for Billy and Brother was a high school diploma. They'd both done that. In her mind, it was now time for them to work. While her boys had been in the service, they'd sent her an allotment, $35 a week. When the war ended and they came home, she gave them the bank books in which she'd saved the money. "I realized I owed her," Louis Stokes says now. "But I still wanted an education."
He got a job with the treasury department as a clerk/typist. He typed government checks all day long and every night went to Cleveland College. A few years later, he attended Cleveland State University's Cleveland Marshall Law School, also at night. He spent his vacation days at the criminal courts, sitting in the back of any courtroom where Norman S. Minor was trying a case.
"Norm Minor was probably the greatest criminal lawyer in the history of our state," says Stokes. "Charisma, beautifully modulated voice. He could mesmerize a jury. Judges were fascinated by him." Stokes laughs. "And I don't care how long a case took — two months, six months — he never took a note. Never. And he never missed a point in any trial."
Eight years of 40-hour workweeks, five-night-a-week school weeks, and "spare" time spent watching trials the way a young saxophonist might have watched John Coltrane. Somehow he found the time to marry his wife, Jay, and start a family.
Once Stokes passed the bar, he applied for court-appointed cases in every court in the city and hustled for cases on the second floor of the old downtown police station, working a network of bail bondsmen for tips that he parlayed into a living. Stokes had the touch, and word spread fast. He was a good lawyer who worked for reasonable rates. In 1957, with his brother, Carl, who didn't share his brother's love of the law and had gone to law school only as a stepping-stone to politics, Louis Stokes ponied up $120 and opened an office on St. Clair in Glenville: Stokes and Stokes.
One day he got a call from a judge, asking if he wanted to be assigned to a case, a rape case.
Along with Norman S. Minor.
"Ma-a-a-a-an, I was thrilled." Stokes says. Stokes, naturally, sat second chair for the trial, but when it came time for the closing arguments, Minor let Stokes deliver it. When he finished, Minor pulled him aside in the cloakroom.
"You were good," Minor said. Stokes' heart soared; they won the case.
Minor asked Stokes how long he'd been trying cases and where his office was, then asked if Stokes would get continuances on some cases for him while he went on vacation. Stokes, of course, agreed. But when a judge on one of the cases refused the request for a continuance, a flummoxed Stokes had no choice but to try the case.
He won that, too.
When Minor came back from vacation, he invited the Stokes brothers to go into practice with him.
WHAT'S MADE Louis Stokes such a large figure in Congress is exactly what's made local portraits of him so poor: that you need to understand Congress to see it. He has, for example, presided for years over the committee that oversees where all the federal housing and urban development dollars go.
This is the sort of thing — measured in dollars and then, later, in votes — that every member of Congress wants desperately to bring home to his or her district. Fail to bring such things home, and you'll probably, come re-election time, get to stay home. On this count alone, Louis Stokes can scarcely walk the halls of Congress, even the bottom-most ones, without someone coming up to him and asking him to consider this project or that.
That's fine, but that's just seniority and the power that goes with it. What characterizes Stokes is how fair he's perceived to be. "When we were the minority, Lou always made the attempt to reach out to us," says congressman Jerry Lewis of California, the onetime ranking Republican on the committee and now its chairman. "That's the kind of man he is. And it s the sort of tiling people remember."
He's also handled other committee assignments that are important and thankless. No one, for example, really wants to serve on the Ethics Committee; you're passing judgment on your peers and holding yourself up, in a de facto way, to intense scrutiny of your own ethics.
Stokes has always valued getting things done more than getting on C-SPAN and speechifying. He's never really courted the spotlight, although he's hit his mark perfectly when it's fallen on him. He still knows, as Oliver North could attest, how to deliver a withering closing argument.
But you see the measure of Louis Stokes when you get a chance to sit in on smaller, human-scale meetings. At a planning session between the Democratic members of Congress and those in the Ohio Assembly, Stokes exhibits that masterful balance of listening and talking that reminds you of your favorite college professor. Whenever he talks, everyone pays attention.
"Other people are louder, other people are more confrontational," says Brown. "Lou gets things done because of his decency or his gentlemanly nature." This is not the stuff of headlines. Only of history.
In the early '60s, when Carl Stokes was elected to the state legislature and more or less abandoned practicing law, his brother became one of the most respected trial lawyers in the state and was appointed chairman of the Legal Redress Committee for the Ohio NAACP. Louis Stokes saw himself foursquare in the tradition of Norman S. Minor and Thurgood Marshall, not great black attorneys, but great attorneys period, who fought for civil rights and for the underdog. People who, in a case that could go either way, you wanted on your side of the aisle.
It was as an NAACP attorney that Stokes got to work on cases that allowed him to go before state and district courts and, three times, the U.S. Supreme Court.
His first case before the Supreme Court, the only one he had to argue, was Terry vs. Ohio, which examined the issue of when exactly a police officer may frisk someone he's stopped. As a result of the case, to quote Black's Law Dictionary— and how many attorneys can say they won a case that wound up as an entry in Black's? — "the scope of the search must be strictly tied to and justified by the circumstances which [justified] the stop."
Terry vs. Ohio (which became a noun: "Terry-stop") was one of the top constitutional cases in the history of the Supreme Court, one every American attorney can cite and every cop has to know.
His other cases, both won on briefs, respectively concerned the one-man, one-vote rule and the gerrymandering of political districts on the East Side of Cleveland. The latter changed Louis Stokes' life forever.
Carl Stokes had let it be known that, in the wake of a 1964 federal order to redraw Ohio's congressional districts, he thought he could run for Congress in the 21st District and win. But when the new 21st District was announced, the East Side black neighborhood had been carved up and now, somehow, was included in three different districts. The Cleveland Press and The Plain Dealer backed the bizarrely shaped new 21st, arguing that it was better for blacks to be represented in several districts than to be a majority in one (never mind that the new 21st took the likelihood of Ohio electing its first black congressman from certainty to nil).
Although Louis says he never discussed the matter directly with his brother, Carl Stokes asked the NAACP to file a lawsuit. Louis Stokes was assigned to the case. Because the legislature was Republican, the NAACP asked one of its former local directors, Charles P. Lucas, to be the plaintiff. The case dragged through the courts for years. Finally, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Lucas vs. Ohio. When Louis Stokes heard the news, the first thing he did was call Carl. "Listen, Brother, we just won your case."
"Hell, man," Carl said. "I don't want to go to Congress. I'm the mayor of Cleveland." He'd just been elected three weeks earlier, had just been on the cover of Time, and was at his zenith as a national figure.
But when George Forbes, Leo A. Jackson and George White, all of them black City Council members, announced that they were running for the seat, Carl flipped. "They hadn't supported me in my fight against the party to create a district a black could win in," Carl wrote in The Promises of Power, "and I'd be damned before I'd let them reap the benefit."
At a Sunday-morning meeting of local NAACP leaders at Pier East on Shaker Square, someone said, "Well, Lou, why don't you run?"
He had not seen this coming at all. He tried to defer to another member of the board, Kenneth Clement, who'd worked on Carl's campaign. The next thing Louis Stokes knew, they'd paid the tab and driven over to Carl's house. When they got there, Carl took Clement into his kitchen, and they talked, alone, for a half-hour. Finally, they came out. "Well, Lou," Carl said. "Looks like you're gonna be the candidate."
After that meeting, Louis Stokes went to the home of Call & Post publisher William O. Walker to get his blessing. Walker had for years been something of a political boss for black Cleveland, and had already talked to Carl, already knew Lou would have the full backing of the multiracial machine Carl had put together to get himself elected. Walker's only insistence was that the Republican candidate be black, too — "a backup."
The candidate Walker tabbed was none other than Charles P. Lucas.
Wasn't it strange for Stokes, running against his own client?
"I had enemies in the primaries," says Stokes. "But with Charlie Lucas, everyone said it was two gentlemen who conducted themselves that way." In November 1968, Louis Stokes took 75 percent of the vote.
Nearly 30 years later, it's hard to see where anyone could have gotten the idea that the black community wouldn't have much influence by being represented by "only" one person — the congressman who turned out to be Louis Stokes.
Twilight has long since fallen. It's dark outside, almost 8 o'clock in Louis Stokes' Washington office.
Once this interview is done, he's got two more things on his schedule, both parties. In Washington, parties, too, are work.
He has been pointing at pictures of Carl, and talking about how much the outpouring of emotion and accolades that came in the wake of Carl's death meant to the Stokes family.
"The media did a splendid job of portraying what Carl meant to Cleveland," says Stokes. "It's a shame he didn't get that kind of recognition while he was alive."
The conventional wisdom is that the brothers were opposites. "That's only partly true," says Stokes. "You couldn't tell our voices apart on the telephone. And we'd both, without discussing it, take the same position on an issue and stand firm on it, almost no matter what it was.
"Carl always liked different challenges, and I think that motivated him." The congressman smiles. "I like to focus on one thing," he says. First it was the law. Then his career's unexpected turn toward politics. "I told myself, 'I'm going to strive to be the best congressman in America,'" he says. "I wanted to set standards that remain."
It is Election Night 1996 at Vel's on the Circle, just off Stokes Boulevard. Judging from the equal distribution of signs all over the place, a person happening in might think this was the county's Democratic headquarters. It's not. It's the Louis Stokes victory party, though his victory is such a fait accompli that no one's really bothering to party. In this district, you'd have to be over the age of 50 to have ever seen a ballot without Louis Stokes' name on it. In that time, you'd almost never have seen anyone get with-in 100,000 votes of him. Stokes' campaign literature doesn't just feature him; it features the entire Democratic slate.
The crowd halfheartedly watches the election returns, broadcast on four soundless televisions suspended from the ceiling. A large-screen TV on a stage has the sound on, but it's low, and is showing some movie with Charles Grodin and a big dog.
At 9 o'clock, one of the TV networks declares President Bill Clinton's victory, and everyone gamely cheers. But it's the other area Democrats they're really watching and cheering for, especially ones like Kucinich and Jane Campbell, who've run close races against incumbent Republicans. When the numbers pop up on-screen for The Congressman, he's beating Republican James Sykora by a 4-to-l margin, a drubbing so bad and so expected that no one's sadistic enough to do more than clap briefly.
Election night might not be the best measure of Louis Stokes' political organization. That would probably be his annual Labor Day picnic, which few Democratic politicians in his home state are impolitic enough to miss. "Everybody wants to get close to Lou, literally and figuratively," says Sherrod Brown. "There's nothing like it. There's no member of Congress that has that kind of loyalty."
Or maybe it would be the weekly meetings of his llth District Caucus, which is what used to be his 21st District Caucus, which is the group (some would call it a "machine," some would not) Louis and Carl Stokes built under the aegis of older black political leaders like Call & Post publisher William O. Walker and which, machine or no, emerged as the best-organized, most-powerful Cleveland political group since the demise of (white) machine politics in the early 1960s.
Or maybe it's Stokes' annual Christmas party at the Convention Center, where thousands of people, mostly poor, mostly African-American, come and receive clothes, food and toys. The Congressman stays there the whole time, for hours, laughing and shaking hands and listening to people's problems.
But at Vel's on the Circle, too, you can see it. You sit at a table and have a beer with a middle-aged welder who's worked on campaigns for one or the other Stokes brother since he was 8 years old, and who hopes that maybe The Congressman can find him a more stable job closer to home. You talk to other people and they reminisce about this and that, and they greet each other like old family at a reunion dinner. You realize that the reason this doesn't feel like a typical election-night victory party is that, while the organization has been held together by tenets of faith in the Stokes brothers; it's something they all believe belongs to them.
And when, near 10 o'clock, The Congressman enters and they cheer, they give him his space and let him casually, gentlemanly, gracefully work his way around the room. One look at their faces and it's clear: he, too, belongs to them. To us. To history.
12:00 AM EST
December 10, 2007