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Issue Date: December 2007 Issue

A Legacy: Louis Stokes

Andy Netzel
"He’s ‘The Congressman,’ ” says congressman Sherrod Brown. ... “Back home, there’s five of us [from Greater Cleveland]. But if someone says ‘the congressman,’ it’s certainly not one of us. It’s Lou.” — “The Congressman,” by Mark Winegardner, May 1997

Look back through the past 35 years of Cleveland Magazine and you’ll only see a few brief mentions of Louis Stokes, who rose from Cleveland’s projects to become a lawyer, try three cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court — including one now taught in law school — and be elected Ohio’s first black congressman.

He was the quieter of the Stokes brothers. He was the RFK of the Cleveland Kennedys — brainy, more interested in progress than politics. In 1996, we described the differences in an article that appeared after Carl Stokes’ death.

“Carl was the crazy one; Lou was the rational one,” wrote Mary Ann Sharkey in “Goodnight Brother.” “Carl was the street-fighter; Lou was the reasoned debater. ... Carl shot pool and drank in bars; and Lou sat in committee hearings and dined with power brokers.”

Stokes agrees to meet me for a tour of the Western Reserve Historical Society’s current exhibit on him and his brother. He seems almost embarrassed as he looks at the items. There was the trumpet he played as a child, the beat-up briefcase and worn desk from his 30 years in Congress. He laughs when asked if he ever thought they’d end up on display. It’s just old stuff, he says.

His mother implored him and Carl to go to college. Louis remembers her saying he needed to “work with my head so I didn’t need to work with my hands.” He never fully understood what that meant until one day, when she was sick, he held her hand. He couldn’t believe the size of the calluses.

Through this exhibit, and the Louis Stokes Museum, which opened in September in the projects where he grew up, he hopes to define the Stokes legacy. He says he wants his lasting message to be directed toward today’s youths.

“If I can raise above those humble circumstances ... this should say to them that they too can achieve and they too, in this country, can be anybody they want to be,” Stokes says.

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