By Mark Gillispie
CLEVELAND — Former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, a 15-term congressman from Ohio who took on tough assignments looking into assassinations and scandals, has died at the age of 90, his family said Wednesday.
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 was elected to the House in 1968, becoming Ohio’s first black member of Congress and one of its most respected and influential. Just a year earlier, his brother, Carl, had been elected mayor of Cleveland – the first black elected mayor of a major U.S. city.
The White House issued a statement from President Barack Obama that noted how Stokes overcame hardships while growing up in Cleveland and praised him for his belief that everyone should have a chance to succeed.
“Lou leaves behind an indelible legacy in the countless generations of young leaders that he inspired, and he will be sorely missed,” Obama said.
U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Cleveland-area Democrat, called Stokes her “predecessor, mentor and friend.”
“He was a giant of a man – the person everyone measured themselves against,” Fudge said in a statement. “It was easy to think of him as almost immortal.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said in a statement that Stokes “always did the right thing.”
“He’ll be remembered in the communities he strengthened, the veterans he served, and the many lives he touched,” Brown said.
Stokes headed the House’s Select Committee on Assassinations that investigated the slayings of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1970s and concluded there “probably” had been a conspiracy in both cases.
Later, he served on the Iran-Contra investigative committee, where he drew attention for his unflinching interrogation of Lt. Col. Oliver North.
He was just as unflinching with his probe of fellow Democrats when he led the ethics committee investigation of a corruption scandal known as ABSCAM, which led to convictions of one senator and six House members. The senator and five of the House members were Democrats.
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.