CLEVELAND (AP) – Louis Stokes rose from an impoverished life in the projects of Cleveland to become one of the most influential and respected members of the U.S. House of Representatives, speakers said Tuesday at a funeral service commemorating his life.
The retired 15-term Democratic congressman died at home of cancer last week at age 90. Vice President Joe Biden and numerous current and former members of Congress helped fill Olivet Institutional Baptist Church to celebrate Stokes’ legacy and achievements.
The Rev. Otis Moss Jr. recounted in a eulogy how Stokes’ mother, Louise, raised him and younger brother Carl in the Outhwaite projects after their father, Charles, died when the boys were young.
Louis Stokes became a civil rights attorney after serving in the Army during World War II. At his brother’s urging, Stokes became the first black person elected to Congress from Ohio in 1968. Carl Stokes had been elected mayor of Cleveland the year before, the first African-American to lead a major U.S. city.
Moss said that despite having been raised on an “island of racial inequality, segregation and injustice,” Stokes achieved greatness by rising above his circumstances.
“Even if you’re blind and asinine, you will still get the blessings from the work of this great man,” Moss said.
Moss noted that when Stokes retired from Congress in 1990, he took on two jobs, that of a lawyer and a college teacher. Stokes remained active in the months preceding his death, having served on a panel commissioned by Ohio Gov. John Kasich to explore problems in the relationship between police and citizens.
Stokes’ grandchildren told mourners how he and their grandmother attended all the big events in their lives and forged tight bonds. Stokes and his wife Jeanette, known as Jay, were married 55 years. Granddaughter Nicolette Thompson called Stokes her best friend.
Stokes’ congressional career saw him lead a select committee that investigated the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He sharply questioned Col. Oliver North during a congressional hearing on the Iran-Contra scandal and became the first black member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
The prestige and influence he gained within the halls of Congress allowed him to bring substantial federal help back to Cleveland, the city that friends and family say he loved. Cleveland’s Veterans Affairs hospital is named after Stokes.
U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge of Warrensville Heights said Stokes was her mentor and trusted friend. She said Stokes “never embraced the shallow notion he should be like everyone else.”
“Congressman Stokes will be ranked as one of the all-time greats,” Fudge said. “And, to be sure, his greatness will endure.”