Louis Stokes rose from the local housing projects to serve 30 years in the U.S. House, becoming a potent symbol for his Cleveland-based majority-black district. Reluctant to enter the political arena, Stokes was persuaded to run for office by his prominent brother and by community members he had served for decades as a civil rights lawyer. Hisaccomplishments were substantive and of historic proportions. The first black to represent Ohio, Stokes chaired several congressional committees (including the Permanent Select Intelligence Committee) and was the first African American to win a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He used his success to try to increase opportunities for millions of African Americans, saying, “I’m going to keep on denouncing the inequities of this system, but I’m going to work within it. To go outside the system would be to deny myself—to deny my own existence. I’ve beaten the system. I’ve proved it can be done—so have a lot of others.” Stokes continued, “But the problem is that a black man has to be extra special to win in this system. Why should you have to be a super black to get someplace? That’s what’s wrong in the society. The ordinary black man doesn’t have the same chance as the ordinary white man does.”
Louis Stokes was born on February 23, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Charles and Louise Cinthy (Stone) Stokes. His father worked in a laundromat and died when Louis was young. Stokes and his younger brother, Carl, were raised by their widowed mother, whose salary as a domestic was supplemented by welfare payments. The boys’ maternal grandmother played a prominent role, tending to the children while their mother cleaned homes in wealthy white suburbs far from downtown Cleveland. Years later, Louise Stokes recalled that she had tried to instill in her children “the idea that work with your hands is the hard way of doing things. I told them over and over to learn to use their heads.” Louis Stokes supplemented the family income by shining shoes around the Cleveland projects and clerking at an Army/Navy store. He attended Cleveland’s public schools and served as a personnel specialist in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946. Much of his tour of duty was spent in the segregated South, driving home for Stokes the basic inequities facing blacks—even those who wore their country’s uniform. He returned home with an honorable discharge, taking jobs in the Veterans Administration and Treasury Department offices in Cleveland while attending college at night with the help of the GI Bill. He attended the Cleveland College of Western Reserve University from 1946 to 1948. Stokes eventually earned a J.D. from the Cleveland Marshall School of Law in 1953 and, with his brother, opened the law firm Stokes and Stokes. On August 21, 1960, Louis Stokes married Jeanette (Jay) Francis, and they raised four children: Shelly, Louis C., Angela, and Lorene.
Initially, Louis Stokes harbored few, if any, ambitions for elective office. He devoted himself to his law practice, where he became involved in a number of civil rights-related cases—often working pro bono on behalf of poor clients and activists. He was an active participant in civic affairs, joining the Cleveland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the board of the Cleveland and Cuyahoga bar associations, and the Ohio State Bar Association’s criminal justice committee, where he served as chairman. He eventually served as vice president of the NAACP’s Cleveland chapter and chaired its legal redress committee for five years. His brother, Carl, pursued a high-profile career in elective office, serving two terms in the Ohio legislature, and in 1967, he won election as mayor of Cleveland, becoming the first black to lead a major U.S. city. “For a long time, I had very little interest in politics,” Louis Stokes recalled. “Carl was the politician in the family and I left politics to him.”