Ohio Politics

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Louis Stokes, Ohio's first black congressman, dies at 90

Louis Stokes, the first black congressman from the state of Ohio, died Tuesday.

He was 90.

Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, seen here in 1998.  (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

Associated Press reporter Mark Gillispie reports that "he died peacefully at home Tuesday with his wife, Jay, at his side, a month after he announced he had brain and lung cancer. 'During his illness, he confronted it as he did life -- with bravery and strength,' his family said in a statement."

Stokes served in Congress starting in 1968 and represented the Cleveland area.

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Stokes was the chair of the House Select Committee on Assassinations and played a key role in investigating the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the 1968 killing of Martin Luther King Jr.

News of Stokes death drew reaction from around Ohio and the nation Wednesday.

President Barack Obama: "Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of former Congressman Louis Stokes. As a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the first African-American to represent the state of Ohio in Congress, Lou believed deeply in fairness and the idea that every American should have the same opportunity to succeed.  Growing up in Depression-era Cleveland with his mother and brother Carl, Lou triumphed over hardship to become a passionate voice for those less fortunate. He fought to expand access to quality healthcare in struggling communities and worked tirelessly on behalf of hardworking Ohioans. Lou leaves behind an indelible legacy in the countless generations of young leaders that he inspired, and he will be sorely missed. Michelle and I send our condolences to his wife Jay and the family and friends who loved him so dearly."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich: "I'm saddened by the loss of my friend Lou Stokes. He was a giant, who led by his conviction as much as he did by his personal grace. I am proud to have served in Congress with him. Cleveland, Ohio and America are stronger for his service and I hope reflecting on that can inspire future leaders at a time when we need to come together more as a country. My family's thoughts and prayers go out to his at this difficult time."

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio: “Lou Stokes always did the right thing and spent his life fighting for Ohioans. I’ve been proud to call him a friend and a mentor, whose counsel I relied on for 30 years. Lou Stokes continued to stand up for northeast Ohioans ‎long after he left Congress.‎ He’ll be remembered in the communities he strengthened, the veterans he served, and the many lives he touched. Connie and I send our thoughts and prayers to his family.”

Rep. Louis Stokes (left), D-Ohio, and Democratic Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter exchange handshakes and quips while Rev. Otis Moss Jr. looked on during Carter's meeting with religious leaderships, Saturday, Oct. 9, 1976 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (AP Photo)

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland: “Frances and I join all of Ohio in mourning the loss of one of our best. I was honored to have the opportunity to work with Lou and learn from him while we served together in the House. He was a tough fighter for justice, a true patriot and a good and caring friend. Lou will be dearly missed, but his legacy and impact on Ohio and this country lives on. Frances and I send our condolences to Lou’s family and everyone who was touched by his life.”

Louis Stokes, Democrat State Representative from Ohio of the 105th Congress of the United States of America from the 1997 Congressional Staff Directories Congressional Portraits CD.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio: “The city of Cleveland and our nation lost an icon this week. Lou Stokes dedicated his life to lifting up others and expanding opportunities for those most in need. He was effective because he knew how to bring people together to solve problems and, as a result, he had a meaningful impact on countless lives in his beloved hometown of Cleveland and around the country. I had the pleasure of serving with Lou in the U.S. House, where we cosponsored a number of bills together, and collaborated on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in my hometown of Cincinnati. I was then fortunate to be his colleague at Squire, Sanders law firm. I had the opportunity to visit with Lou in Cleveland just last week, where I was able to express my gratitude for his friendship and for his remarkable public service career. Jane and I send our deepest condolences to Lou's wife Jay and their entire family.”

Former Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin: "As the first African American elected to Congress from Ohio, he traveled the state of Ohio for many events sponsored by African Americans. He was a consummate gentleman, scholar and very personable person. Always looking out for his constituencies. He spoke at my Dad's funeral and took me under his wing. The leadership displayed by him was one of integrity and courage. A giant of leadership has fallen and shall be missed."

Former State Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland: "He was a bright and shining star who made history as Ohio's first African-American member of Congress.  During his tenure he accomplished a great deal for the city of Cleveland and northern Ohio. He was a transformational figure, particularly in black Ohio politics, who lifted his citizens and aspiring young African-American politicians as he climbed. Even in his later years, he continued to work on behalf of the citizens as a member of the Ohio Task Force on Community-Police Relations. Congressman Stokes' legacy is cemented in American history as a leader who broke many racial and social barriers.”

U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Cleveland: "He was a giant of a man -- the person everyone measured themselves against ... It was easy to think of him as almost immortal."

In this November 1977, file photo, Dennis Kucinich, his wife, Sandy, right, and Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, raise their arms at the Party Center in Cleveland after Kucinich won the race for Cleveland mayor.  (The Plain Dealer via AP, File) MANDATORY CREDIT; NO SALES

Here's more from the Associated Press story on Stokes' death:

Stokes was repeatedly called upon to exercise his legal training and diplomatic skills. He did two tours of duty as chairman of the ethics committee and stepped in upon request during the investigation of a case involving the private life of U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who retired in 2013.

He was one of the Cold War-era chairmen of the House Intelligence Committee, led the Congressional Black Caucus and was the first black on the House Appropriations Committee -- a powerful panel that decides how much each authorized federal project actually gets to spend.

That post gave him a platform for protecting major Cleveland employers, such as NASA Lewis Research Center, and for directing federal dollars toward hometown projects.

His seniority on that panel eventually brought him the chairmanship of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over all federal housing programs, plus the Department of Veterans Affairs, NASA and other independent agencies.

Stokes' public demeanor was patient and analytical, but colleagues also knew him as tough, principled and skillful.

He was one of only nine blacks in the 435-member House when he first took the oath of office in 1969 and never forgot his roots as the child of poverty and great-grandson of a slave.

He spoke often of his admiration for his younger brother, who served two terms as Cleveland mayor and was later a broadcaster and judge. Stokes lost some of his zest for politics after his brother died of cancer in 1996.

Stokes served in the Army from 1943 to 1946 in a segregated unit where he said he experienced racism for the first time in his life.

Struggles with racism lasted a lifetime.

In 1991, a Capitol Hill police officer ignored Stokes' valid parking tag and refused to let the congressman into his own office building; he didn't believe the black man behind the wheel was a member of Congress.

Stokes leveled his complaint through official channels and did not complain publicly about the demeaning delay at his own office building.

A criminal lawyer for two decades before running for Congress, he argued a landmark "stop and frisk" case before the Supreme Court and worked on the NAACP lawsuit that forced Ohio to redraw the lines of what would become the state's first black-majority congressional district.

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