Student William Kennedy Remembers Congressman Louis Stokes

Intensive Weekend MSSA student William Kennedy wrote this moving tribute to Congressman Louis Stokes upon hearing of his death on August 18, 2015. This remembrance was on display in the lobby of the Western Reserve Historical Society in University Circle during the museum’s memorial to the civil rights icon.

Louis Stokes: Student Remembers by William Edward Kennedy

I first met Louis Stokes in the fall of 2014, when he presented to our CWRU graduate class on social policy and service delivery. Having discovered that he would be our distinguished guest lecturer, I decided to tour the museum dedicated to his life and legacy the day before his visit.

The Louis Stokes Museum was opened in 2007 and is located in the CMHA Outhwaite Homes, the federal housing project where he lived as a child with his mother and younger brother, Carl B. Stokes, the first black mayor elected in a major American city, Cleveland, in 1967.

Sadly, on a lunch hour on a mid-September Friday, one of two days a week the museum is open, I was the only visitor. It took some effort to find the room, and when I did I also had to locate the light switch. Still, as the room gradually glowed to life, a smile came to my face.

Louis Stokes was nationally renowned for his distinct achievements. Fifteen terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. First black Congressman from Ohio. First African American on the House Appropriations Committee. Founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. And on and on.

But when you enter his museum, you find out what really mattered to the man. A crayon-colored picture of thanks from a neighborhood child. A note of gratitude from a local pastor. A letter of appreciation from an area school. The very personal legacy of the very public politician.

Sure, there were also the accolades, perhaps more local than national, interspersed among the family photos, archival videos, and private memorabilia. And as an American jazz enthusiast, my interest was piqued by a few unlabeled and enigmatic awards from The Duke Ellington Society.

And so it was, following his public policy presentation the next day, after seeing the Louis Stokes from the annals of history come to life right before my eyes, that I mentioned my visit to the museum, and asked him about his connection to Edward Kennedy Ellington, the “Duke.”

He explained that when Ellington passed in 1974, a treasure trove of his unreleased music and memorabilia was discovered, and eventually made available to the Smithsonian Institution and American public, in part due to his efforts on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.

He smiled warmly, said he was pleased I had been to the museum, and continued to answer more course-related questions from the class. But as he left the room that day, he turned back and announced, “And to my music friend, you should know that Rick James was my cousin!”

Rick James. The one-of-a-kind funk, soul, doo-wop, rock, and rhythm and blues composer and performer, a generation younger than his congressman cousin, though he had passed in 2004, was his direct relation. Now that was a cool connection. Pretty funky. Super-freaky.

We were honored to host Louis Stokes again in the spring of 2015, when he gave a bookend presentation to our same CWRU cohort in a graduate course on macro policy and practice skills. By then in his 90th year, his smile was every bit as heartfelt. And his eyes still glowed.

I approached him in the hall afterward, shook his hand, and patted him on the shoulder, noting, “Hey! It’s Rick James’s cousin!” He laughed and smiled broadly, responding, “I remember you! I remember you!” And for a moment we were both children. And there was just the music.

Louis Stokes touched the lives of millions of Americans. We are all the beneficiaries of his legacy. He was a voice and a vote for the marginalized and disenfranchised. That rare social worker politician. His transition to faculty member at CWRU must have felt like a homecoming.

We should also remember that his story, in part, was made possible by positive social policy. He himself noted federal housing and G.I. Bill support. He was simply given a fair chance, made the most of it, and fought his entire life to make sure others would have the same opportunity.

When Louis Stokes co-taught our class with Professor Gerald Strom, on September 20th, 2014, he explained how a bill really becomes a law (no disrespect to the Schoolhouse Rock! version), and why it matters. He even shared an anecdote about a private meeting with President Nixon.

But I’ll always remember the first thing he said. “Anything you do is not too small, and is more than was there before.” For a weekend social work student in middle adulthood, it validated my presence in the classroom, and confirmed that I still made a difference as a “change agent.”

When he co-taught our class with Professor G. Regina Nixon, on April 11th, 2015, he elucidated on the U.S. House Committees on Appropriations, Rules, and Ways and Means, discussed local politics, and cited Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. as heroes.

As an instructor, Louis Stokes was gracious with his time, wisdom, and heart. He was earnest but patient. Assured but humble. Passionate and compassionate. Accessible and uplifting. To borrow a phrase from social rights activist Desmond Tutu, he was also a “prisoner of hope.”

When I first met the man, I innocently addressed him as “Mr. Stokes,” unaware that the proper etiquette, even in retirement, was still “Congressman Stokes.” And he had, after all, earned that political honorific, that prestigious prefix, that illustrious, reverent, and venerable title.

But Louis Stokes was a man of the people. He was fine with “Mr. Stokes.” Or perhaps just “Lou.” And a shared smile said more than words. He was a distinguished legislator, an exceptional human being, and yes, Rick James’s cousin. And for two memorable days, he was my teacher.