It was more than just a parade. Sept. 7 symbolized a day to remember Louis Stokes and what the annual 11th Congressional District Community Caucus Labor Day Parade meant to the congressman. As cheerleaders flashed their pompoms and marching bands rose their shining horns, politicians and bystanders sported buttons with Stokes' smiling face and waved posters paying tribute to the charismatic leader who passed away Aug. 18.
As it had been for 44 years, the Kinsman neighborhood tradition was about unity.
Bringing people together was the backbone of Stokes' legacy. While Louis served in Congress, he and brother Carl started the bipartisan 21st Congressional District Caucus. It emerged as one of the best-organized, most-powerful Cleveland political groups with veteran councilman Charles V. Carr and young councilman George L. Forbes; Call & Post publisher William O. Walker and political strategist Arnold Pinkney, among others.
When Congress members from other cities visited the caucus' meetings, they marveled that the political group could hold gatherings every week with such large grassroots participation. When Cleveland City Council adjourned its Monday night meetings, it was common for members to rush to the caucus meeting 3 miles away and report on City Hall developments.
At the peak of its power in the 1970s and 1980s, political leaders who had relegated its members to the back of the ballot became eager to march in its Labor Day Parade and speak at its gatherings. Candidates ranging from local judgeship aspirants to contenders for governor and president showed up. They knew that such a cohesive bloc of voters could not be ignored.
The kind of unity that the caucus cobbled in the 1960s and 1970s helped force open the gates of opportunity for professionals, business people and workers who historically had been consigned to the fringes of community leadership.
But the caucus has not had its powerful weekly meetings for almost two decades as the congressional district expanded and became more diverse. Many of the younger politicians of today whose paths into office were paved by the labor of the Stokes generation did not learn about the solidarity that made community politics possible. While our challenges as a city today may seem different, community leaders could learn a lesson from the old guard. It takes a lot of perseverance.
There was a facade of racial tolerance and cooperation in Northeast Ohio during the 1960s, but underlying antipathy was as strong as it today. Early in the decade, building trade workers shut down construction when a black sheet metal worker was hired at a convention center project. Democratic county chairman Bert Porter urged Clevelanders to vote against Carl for mayor so Martin Luther King Jr. would not take over City Hall. When a bat-wielding white was stabbed to death as he attacked two black teenagers walking through his neighborhood, a mob marched on Carl's house and threatened to lynch the mayor. They were turned back only when black police said they would open fire.
When Carl ran for re-election, an unrelated referendum for the 18-year-old vote was also on the ballot. White off-duty policemen acting as observers for the referendum stationed themselves in black polling places and let their guns show as they aggressively challenged citizens.
The atmosphere of latent hostility kept black voters aware that safety and progress would come only by sticking together. And the Stokes brothers unified the city as much as they could.
As the first big city in the nation to elect an African-American mayor, Cleveland pioneered procedures to break down barriers that were copied across the country. Banks were denied the deposit of city funds unless they were willing to finance African-American businesses on the same basis as borrowers from other communities. Contractors were scrutinized to see that they did not discriminate before they could do business with the city.
Candidates from other parts of the country sought advice from Carl on how to get elected in a multiracial community. Other black mayors studied what happened in Cleveland, so they too could ensure nondiscrimination by vendors. Some even lured veterans of the Stokes administration to join their staffs.
What happened here was, of course, just a part of the revolutionary change in race relations that was taking place across the country, but Cleveland's use of municipal power to achieve social change was trailblazing.
But only to a point. As law firms took on bright young people who had been overlooked and corporations opened their executive training ranks, factories were closing. A whole segment of the population was left behind as good jobs were snatched from the hopes of so many inner-city residents.
With Cleveland no longer a powerhouse of the industrial world, the have-nots became even more isolated from economic and political opportunities. By the time Louis retired in 1999, the unifying voice he'd provided for the African-American community had broken down. Today, voter participation has weakened nationwide, but especially in black areas — except when President Barack Obama is on the ballot.
Where will the new African-American leaders come from? Ask political old-timers and you're likely to get the traditional geriatric answer: "These young people are just different from the way we were."
Maybe the old-timers are on to something. The economic challenges facing today's youth are fundamentally different from those of Cleveland's past, and the responses will be different. Interest in conventional political activity is hardly visible among young people anywhere, but that doesn't mean bright and committed minds are not at work in groups connected with the Black Lives Matter movement and other social action activities. Hopefully, they will be open to benefit from the experience of the older generation, but the course they follow will be their own.
During the Jim Crow days of the early 1960s, few would have predicted that the civil rights activists' demand for integration would transform into the black power movement. Change is coming for Cleveland's African-American citizens.
The new leaders just aren't visible yet.