One of my most enduring memories of former Rep. Lou Stokes is from the Fall of 2008, two days before the presidential election.
Lou was looking dapper in his long wool coat as he stood with friends — the Rev. Otis Moss and his wife, Edwina — waiting to greet candidate Barack Obama before he took the stage at his final rally in Cleveland.
The crowd’s excitement was palpable. We were about to elect the first black president of the United States. To my surprise, Lou was solemn and mostly silent on the eve of this historic election.
When I asked whether he was excited, he shook his head and smiled. “That word doesn’t come close to how I feel,” he said. “It’s a day I wish my brother had lived to see.”
His younger brother, Carl Stokes, was the first black mayor of a major American city, elected in 1967. He died in 1996.
Lou died this week. He was 90.
There will be many public tributes to Lou Stokes. He will be eulogized as a great statesman, which he was.
I will remember him as the best of men, a champion fighter, a steadfast friend. In my career as a journalist and in my life as the wife of a U.S. senator, I’ve met a lot of high-ranking public officials. Lou was singular in his refusal to let his title trump his humanity.
He was a gentleman — always quick with an apology to strangers who had to wait their turn to say hello and never adopting the Washington habit of looking past the person in front of him in search of someone more important, more powerful.
For years, he would leave phone messages cheering me on when he knew one of my columns — usually about race — would elicit angry responses. “Connie, my sister,” his messages began. He always signed off with “So, you carry on.”
For years, I needled Lou to write his memoirs. His was a grand life full of lessons for all of us.
He knew the giants of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. His stories about King — and he had many — were never cast as a boast. King’s name came up as a point of instruction. “This is what he taught us… how he helped us… what he did to make us better.”
In a videotaped interview last year with Brent Larkin, a former Plain Dealer editor, Lou described how King helped his brother become mayor of Cleveland.
“(King) came (to Cleveland) in 1965, and… he would stand on that flatbed truck and exhort people to vote and talked about the necessity for them to vote and told them that in the North that they needed to be as concerned about civil rights as they were in the South. And the consequence was that he registered black voters as they had never been registered anywhere in the country, here in Cleveland.
“Carl happened to be running for mayor for the first time in 1965. That was the year Carl lost by 1,700 votes. So that told us we could win. So two years later, Carl ran in 1967 for mayor again. And Dr. King came back again in 1967, did the same thing he had done in 1965 (and) this time registered even more black voters. And so that was tremendously helpful in terms of getting out the vote for Carl’s election.”
In the wee morning hours of election night, when Carl took the stage to declare victory, King was there but didn’t want to distract from Carl’s historic achievement that night. So Lou sat with him at campaign headquarters. They talked about the need for economic parity, about how political power is never enough.
In that interview, Lou added rather matter-of-factly that years later, he chaired House investigations of two assassinations: John F. Kennedy’s and that of his friend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Such was the overarching life of Lou Stokes.
On Tuesday, shortly after I posted on Facebook a story about Lou, a reader named Mandy Anderson shared her 2013 encounter with a stranger in a CVS on Cleveland’s east side. With her permission, I am sharing it with you:
“At my last nanny job, I had to take a sick two-year-old to the pharmacy to pick up antibiotics. He was fussy and tired and not feeling well and it made the wait excruciating. Then, the older gentleman sitting next to us leaned over and in a gentle voice started talking to the baby, telling stories and making faces and playing peekaboo. The baby was fascinated and was smiling for the first time that day. I didn’t know who it was until they called his name, but Louis Stokes definitely made my work a little easier that day!!”
The last time I saw Lou was in March, right after President Obama’s speech to The City Club of Cleveland. In a picture I snapped that day, Lou is dressed sharp as ever in a pinstripe suit, the triangle tips of his pocket square peeking out. He and the president are clasping hands, and Lou is beaming, leaning in as he listens, oblivious to the throng around them.
When Lou spotted me aiming my camera in his direction, he waved and later made his way through the crowd to give me his usual bear hug. “I’ve been working on that book,” he whispered in my ear. “Maybe I do have a story to tell.”
Ninety years old, more than four decades of public service, friend to civil rights icons and presidents — and he was at “maybe.”
That’s what I’ll miss most about Lou Stokes.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo: Former congressman Louis Stokes (D-OH), via Case Western Reserve University.