Louis Stokes, Congressman From Ohio and Champion of the Poor, Dies at 90
Louis Stokes, who as the first African-American congressman from Ohio helped focus federal attention on the nation’s poor and led a special House investigation into the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died on Tuesday at his home in a Cleveland suburb. He was 90.
The cause was lung and brain cancer, said his daughter Lori Stokes, who is a news anchor on WABC in New York.
Mr. Stokes, a Democrat, served in the House for 30 years starting in 1969, representing Ohio’s 21st Congressional District. Encompassing the east side of Cleveland and several suburbs and comprising a predominantly African-American population, the district was created in 1967 in response to a Supreme Court ruling in a case in which Mr. Stokes, then a civil rights lawyer, played a major role.
One of Mr. Stokes’s colleagues in that redistricting fight was his younger brother, Carl, who was the mayor of Cleveland from 1967 to 1971 and later became a television news anchor on WNBC in New York. He died in 1996.
Louis Stokes garnered national attention as the head of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which after two years of investigations in the late 1970s concluded that the Kennedy and King killings may have involved conspiracies. But he thought that his most significant role was as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, which helps determine how federal dollars are spent.
“It’s the only committee to be on,” he once said. “All the rest is window dressing.”
As a committee member, Mr. Stokes steered funds toward housing and urban development projects, job placement programs and health clinics. As the chairman of the subcommittee dealing with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and several other agencies, he oversaw allocations of more than $90 billion a year.
Inadequate health care for minorities was a major concern of his, and he was an early advocate of federal intervention in the AIDS crisis, which was ravaging black communities in the 1990s. Interviewed for this obituary in 2011, Mr. Stokes said he was particularly proud of sponsoring legislation that established the Office of Minority Health as a permanent federal agency. “That started the real work of that office,” he said.
A balding, round-faced man, Mr. Stokes was known as a determined legislator with a congenial manner. That combination prompted the House speaker, Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., to choose him to lead the assassinations investigation in 1976.
Unlike the Warren Commission, which conducted the government’s official review of Kennedy’s assassination and concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone, the House panel, formed a decade later, found that the president “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.”
Similarly, in the King case, the committee found that while James Earl Ray was the gunman, there was probably a conspiracy. That assertion was based on allegations that perhaps 50 people had been offered money to kill Dr. King.
“We found that the F.B.I. was seriously misguided because they assumed that Ray was the lone assassin and never pursued the investigation from the viewpoint of a conspiracy,” Mr. Stokes said in the interview.
The national spotlight shone on Mr. Stokes again in 1987 when, as a member of the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, he confronted Lt. Col. Oliver North about his central role in the Iran-contra affair. Colonel North, a Marine working at the National Security Council, was involved in the clandestine sale of weapons to Tehran and the diversion of proceeds from those sales to anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua, known as the contras.
When Colonel North said he had acted out of patriotism, Mr. Stokes replied, “Others, too, love America just as much as you do.”
Louis Stokes was born in Cleveland on Feb. 23, 1925, and grew up in a public housing project there. His father, Charles, died when Louis was 3. His mother, the former Louise Stone, supported Louis and Carl by working as a maid.
Louis Stokes served in the Army from 1943 to 1946 and said that the racial discrimination he faced had a crucial impact on him.
“I remember being moved from Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis to Camp Stewart, Ga., through Memphis,” he said. “They stopped the train there to eat lunch. The first dining room was all white soldiers; the next dining room was for German P.O.W.s. A black curtain separated the black soldiers from the German P.O.W.s. It was one of the first times it really hit me.”
For two years after the war, Mr. Stokes attended what is now Case Western Reserve University at night while working in the Cleveland office of the Veterans Administration. Because of his good grades, he was accepted into the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, from which he graduated in 1953. He and his brother, who earned his law degree from the same college in 1956, later opened a law firm and became involved in civil rights cases.
Working on behalf of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P. in 1965, Mr. Stokes helped challenge the Ohio legislature’s congressional redistricting, which had diluted black voting strength in Cleveland. With Charles Lucas, a black Republican, he wrote the brief that prompted a Supreme Court ruling leading to the creation of Ohio’s first majority-black district, the 21st.
At his brother’s behest, Mr. Stokes ran for that seat in 1968 and defeated Mr. Lucas, his ally in the redistricting fight, with 75 percent of the vote. He won 14 subsequent general elections by similarly lopsided margins. After his congressional career, he resumed his work as a lawyer.
In a statement, President Obama said that the hardships Mr. Stokes had faced while growing up in Cleveland imbued him with the belief that everyone should have the chance to succeed. “Lou leaves behind an indelible legacy in the countless generations of young leaders that he inspired,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Stokes married Jay Francis, who survives him, in 1960. Besides her and their daughter, Lori, he is survived by a son, Chuck; two other daughters from an earlier marriage, which ended in divorce, Shelley Stokes-Hammond and Angela Stokes; and seven grandchildren. Lori Stokes did not specify the town in which her father lived.
Mr. Stokes remained convinced that lasting social and political change could be made best only inside the halls of power.
“I’m going to keep on denouncing inequities in the system, but I’m going to work within it,” he once said. “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.”