(I wrote this for Martin Luther King Day years back; it is even more powerful now.)
Former Congressman Louis Stokes, of Ohio, a veteran of 30 years in the House of Representatives, was at Gurney's Inn with his family a few years back. The then 83-year-old gentleman, the only African-American ever elected to Congress from the great state of Ohio, used his distinguished baritone voice to share with me his front-step view of American history. Louis and Carl Stokes were raised by a single Mom in Cleveland who worked hard as a house cleaner to insure that the boys got a great education. Both sons went all the way to law school and actually opened one of the first black law practices in Cleveland, Stokes and Stokes.
In 1967 in the full heat of racial discord and Dr. Martin Luther King's quest for racial equality, Louis's brother Carl won election in Cleveland as the nation's first black mayor of a major U.S. City. Louis fondly recalled, "Upstairs in the hotel suite watching the returns with the Stokes brothers was Dr. King himself." When Carl won, Louis said, they asked Dr. King to come down and share in the accomplishment, Dr. King said, "No Carl, if I come down it will be that an Afro-American has won, if you go down alone it will be that the best man won who just happens to be an Afro-American."
Louis stopped and looked right into my eyes. His point was made. When asked about his own stellar career representing Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives Stokes was very proud of being Chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. During his tenure he held meetings on many things. One was the Committee on Assassinations which took another look at the JFK assination., Those hearings, he said convinced him that there were two shooters. The convincing evidence to Rep. Stokes was the recorded sound track of a Dallas Policeman's radio belt that by chance, while turned on, picked up and recorded the shots as they were fired. He said the committee went down to Dallas and re-enacted the whole assignation with a skilled sniper and dummies in the same car. The skilled sniper also did not miss.
Another hearmq Rep. Stokes chaired was on the Abscam scandal in which Rep. Jenrette was convicted and sent to prison after the FBI had film of him stuffing wads of cash into every pocket of his suit during a sting operation,
He also told a story that was about recent events, Just a few months before this interview in 2009, when black Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones passed away from an untimely illness, Stokes was in Ohio at the Memorial service in Cleveland which was also attended by Barack Obama, Bill and Hilary Clinton, and many other notables, Louis spoke at the funeral, but in the middle of his eulogy he just stopped in the emotion and said, "By the way, Barack, never in my lifetime did I think that I would ever see the day when a black man would become President."
In an emotional moment for all three, Obama came forward, hugged Stokes, and whispered in his ear, "If it weren't for you and your brother Carl, I wouldn't be here,"
And that is the essence of what Louis and Carl Stokes meant to the future of this nation, Their mother's hard work and sacrifice laid the foundation. It is what this country is truly all about.
Former Representative Louis Stokes was at Gurney's to be included in Ingrid Lemme's American Dream TV show. His daughter Lori Stokes was also filmed for another show that day, It was just by chance Louis Stokes and I shared lunch on the set that day.
And on that day I was able to hear history from a man who made it. Finally, at the end, I asked my last question, my big question, I asked former Rep. Stokes what was his most important and memorable vote. He paused, looked me died in the eye, and said, "Well that's a difficult question, but I guess the vote I made to establish Dr. King's national holiday has to be it."
Then he smiled. Perhaps he had actually realized it was a powerful answer. He said it again, "Definitely the vote to make Dr. King's birthday a holiday." You had to think about what it meant to Louis Stokes to honor a man who touched his life by starting a process to peacefully knock down barrier after barrier.