The entire Mandel School community is deeply saddened today to learn of the death of civil rights icon Louis Stokes, who was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Mandel School since his retirement from Congress in 1998. He died Tuesday, August 18, at the age of 90, after being diagnosed in late June with an aggressive form of cancer.
“I grieve in the news that Congressman Stokes has passed away,” said Dean Grover “Cleve” Gilmore. “While I am very saddened by his passing, I rejoice in the accomplishments of his life. He truly has made a difference in our nation, our region, and in the lives of the students, faculty, and staff of the Mandel School. Each semester I read the wonderful teaching evaluations that he received. He brought advocacy and policy reform to life for our students. They were inspired and supported by his example and his advice. He also was generous in giving his time and wisdom to students, alumni, and faculty who sought his advice. He was a great man and leaves an indelible mark on our lives.”
- In Memoriam to Louis Stokes: Watch video, see photo gallery, leave condolence messages, and share memories
- Louis Stokes: His political mastery rested on decency and gentle wit — Cleveland.com
- President Obama Reflects on Passing of Louis Stokes — Fox8 News
- Dean Gilmore interviewed about Louis Stokes’ lasting legacy in Cleveland — Fox 8 News
- Dean Gilmore’s remembrance — CWRU think magazine
An active member of the Mandel School faculty, Stokes taught classes, advised his fellow faculty, and even spent his 90th birthday at the school. But his story begins on February 23, 1925, when he was born in Cleveland. His father, Charles, passed away when Louis and his brother Carl were very young. The boys were raised by their mother, Louise, who had high expectations for her sons. She worked hard so that her sons would not have to stay in the housing projects and on welfare; the key for them, she believed, was education. Stokes took this advice to heart and dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
After graduating from high school, Stokes joined the army and served in the south. His passion for black advocacy was ignited by his treatment as a second-class citizen in the country he was serving. Stokes returned to Cleveland after serving for three years, attending the Cleveland College at Western Reserve University in the evenings and working as a clerk for the Treasury during the day. He earned his J.D. from Cleveland Marshall Law School in 1953. Louis spent the next years establishing himself as a criminal lawyer and opened a firm, Stokes and Stokes, with his brother, Carl. He quickly became one of the top civil rights lawyers in the state and took several high profile cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Louis entered the political arena fortuitously in 1968, when new congressional district lines were drawn based on one of his Supreme Court victories. With the encouragement of Carl, the newly elected mayor of Cleveland, Louis ran for Congress and became the first African American from Ohio to be elected to that position. He served as a U.S. Congressman for thirty years. Among his achievements in office were chairing the Appropriations Committee, which allowed him to send millions of federal dollars back to Ohio, founding the Congressional Black Caucus, and chairing the Ethics Committee. Stokes prided himself on always serving his constituents with excellence and for advocating for those without power, especially minority groups.
In the 1970s, then dean M.C. “Terry” Hokenstad, PhD, worked with Stokes to set up the Washington Semester program for Mandel School students, providing a number of students with the opportunity to do their second year field placement in Washington, D.C. Stokes held an annual reception for the program and personally identified many of the field placement opportunities.
“Congressman Stokes actively supported and participated in the educational programs of the Mandel School for over 40 years,” recalls Dr. Hokenstad, a Distinguished University Professor and Ralph S. and Dorothy P. Schmitt Professor. “He was a good friend and then colleague who contributed expertise in the classroom and informal conversation. He will be missed personally and professionally.”
Stokes retired from Congress in 1998 at the age of 73, but retirement did little to slow him down. He came home to Cleveland and he became Senior Counsel at Squire, Sanders, and Dempsey LLP, a global law firm. He also took on the role of Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Mandel School. Upon his appointment Stokes said, “It is and honor to return in this capacity to the institution where I acquired my own education. This appointment enables me to share the knowledge and expertise I have acquired over thirty years in public service with students and the community I love.”
Once on faculty, Stokes made a significant impact on the school, his fellow faculty, and students. He and former dean Arthur Naparstak designed the Louis Stokes Fellowship Program, which focuses on the education of African-American and Hispanic professionals in community development to transform urban areas and neighborhoods to improve the quality of life for residents through economic, housing, and civic development. The goal is to return Stokes Fellows to their communities with enhanced skills and to continue their growth in leadership in order to effect change. Since the initial cohort in 2001, more than 20 Stokes Fellows have graduated from the Mandel School and continue Stokes’ legacy of service and advocacy.
During his time on campus, the congressman sponsored the Louis Stokes Leadership Symposium on Social Issues and the Community, which has featured such speakers as U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel from New York, and U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, who now holds the seat Stokes filled for 30 years.
Students also benefitted from Stokes’ guest lectures on social policy and civil rights. His message students was powerful and clear and he had a great appreciation for the work they had chosen to dedicate themselves to. “There is nothing better than the opportunity to serve people,” he taught. “Continue to stand for and believe in justice, eliminate pediments to equal opportunity, use your education to help people, and seek justice for those who don’t have it.”
He also often told the social work students, “I want to thank you (social workers), you sure changed my life.” Stokes knew from personal experience, having grown up poor in a rough neighborhood and being visited by social workers when he was a child — one of whom was an alumna who made a lasting impression. In 2005, the Mandel School’s (then) oldest living graduate, Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson, came into Stokes’ life — again. As she wrote in her memoir, “It Is Well With My Soul: The Extraordinary Life of a 106-Year-old Woman,” Johnson had been one of two the social workers from the Aid to Dependent Children who personally visited the Stokes family when Louis and Carl were young. When the civil rights legend met the alumna again later in life, Stokes and Johnson recalled each other fondly.
“My impression of Mrs. Cheeks was that she was doing a tough job with compassion,” Stokes said. They formed a friendship in her last years. Stokes relayed to her that he found it “incredibly rewarding to interact with students committed to helping build a more just society, working to eradicate the effects of injustice and discrimination.”