CLEVELAND – The boy with the paper route who answered to the nickname “Billy” knew what he wanted in life. But he had no idea how he’d get there.
“I knew, if things worked out, that I’d like to be a lawyer one day,” Lou Stokes told us during a wide-ranging interview back in 2013.
Things, of course, worked out for Stokes, in ways he said exceeded his dreams.
And now, everyone can share in the journey, thanks to his new autobiography, aptly titled “The Gentleman from Ohio.”
The book was written late in Stokes’ life (he died last August at the age of 90), and chronicles his rise from near abject poverty as a young boy to becoming a political legend in his hometown.
Born in Cleveland in 1925, Stokes’ early life was spent in a home with no heat or indoor plumbing. His father died when he was just a boy, and his mother worked in wealthy people’s homes to support Lou and his younger brother, Carl (who would grow up to become the first African-American to lead a major city when he was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1967.).
As a paper boy, he read what he delivered – especially stories of black men falsely accused of crimes.
The young Stokes was particularly drawn to the story of the “Scotsboro Boys” – nine black teens falsely accused of raping two white women in 1930’s Alabama.
Stokes was fascinated by the work of the attorneys representing the accused, and wanted to follow in their footsteps. But his family couldn’t afford to send him to college.
“College wasn’t even in my future,” he told us in 2013. But then fate, and World War II, intervened.
“I served in World War II, and when I came out, I took advantage of the GI bill, and went to college, and the rest is history,” Stokes said. The book traces Stokes’ rise in Cleveland – first, as an attorney who argued the first “stop and frisk” case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and later, as a member of Congress from his hometown who served for 30 years.
Stokes’ career is intertwined with the civil rights movement, and the book takes readers behind-the-scenes to see how those political struggles played out in Cleveland.
“I think he’s speaking to America,” says his daughter, Lori, now a news anchor in New York, “but, in every sense, this is a Cleveland book.” At a time when few African-Americans received leadership opportunities, Stokes helped blaze the trail.
The book goes into details of his congressional committee’s re-investigation of both the assassinations of President John Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Stokes chaired the committee, and used his skills as a lawyer to dig for the truth.
“He loved the Constitution,” his daughter Lori says, “and he loved justice.”
It was perhaps President Barack Obama who put Stokes’ contribution into the best historical context. In 2008, when he was still a candidate for President, Obama came to Cleveland to attend the funeral for Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones.
As he got up, Obama leaned over and whispered in Lou Stokes’ ear. Later, Lori Stokes asked her father what Obama had said.
“He said, “I want you to know that I know that I would not be here, it it were not for you and your brother,'” Lori now recalls her father telling her.
After relaying the story, Lori says her father lowered his head, and just shook it, almost in disbelief.
The book, “The Gentleman from Ohio”, will be published on September 1st by the Ohio State University Press, and will be available at fine bookstores, and online.