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Louis Stokes, Ohio's First African-American U.S. Congressman, Dies At 90

Rep. Louis Stokes was the dean of the Ohio congressional delegation until he stepped down in 1999.
Tony Dejak
Rep. Louis Stokes was the dean of the Ohio congressional delegation until he stepped down in 1999.

Former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes of Ohio, who was the state's first black congressman and who represented Cleveland and some of its neighboring suburbs for 30 years, has died. He was 90.

His death Tuesday was confirmed by a family statement and comes a month after Stokes revealed that he had been diagnosed with brain and lung cancer. The family statement read, in part:

"During his illness, he confronted it as he did life — with bravery and strength. He was always guided by faith, while embracing the prayers and well wishes of family, friends and constituents. We are grateful for the cards, prayers and words of comfort during this difficult time. He loved Cleveland and he was honored to have the opportunity to represent its citizens in the United States Congress."

Stokes served 15 terms. He was first elected to Congress in 1968 and in the following decade would become chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassination, which was tasked with looking into the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. In both cases, the panel deemed that there "probably" had been a conspiracy.

Speaking to NPR's Tell Me More in 2008, Stokes recalled the committee's conclusions about King's death:

"Well, we concluded that James Earl Ray had been the assassin, that he was in fact the person who had pulled the trigger to the rifle that killed Dr. King. We also found that there was the possibility of a conspiracy, though we were not able to identify the co-conspirators."

Stokes also served on the committee that looked into the Iran-Contra affair, and he garnered attention for his tough questioning of Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Before he was elected to Congress, Stokes served three years in the Army and then used the G.I. Bill to go to college and law school. In 1967, he argued a landmark "stop and frisk" case, Terry v. Ohio, before the U.S. Supreme Court.

President Obama said in a statement Wednesday that Stokes left behind an "indelible legacy":

"Lou believed deeply in fairness and the idea that every American should have the same opportunity to succeed. Growing up in Depression-era Cleveland with his mother and brother Carl, Lou triumphed over hardship to become a passionate voice for those less fortunate. He fought to expand access to quality healthcare in struggling communities and worked tirelessly on behalf of hardworking Ohioans."

Perhaps the largest part of Stokes' legacy is his role in helping to found the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971, with its mission of serving "as the voice for people of color and vulnerable communities in Congress."

The Black Caucus' current chairman, G.K. Butterfield, said members were saddened by Stokes' passing.

"Mr. Stokes was the embodiment of a public servant. He selflessly used his elected positions to increase opportunities for millions of African Americans. We will miss our dear friend, Louis B. Stokes, but the impact of his legacy of service and commitment to his constituents and the African American community will be remembered for generations to come."

Ohio's senior senator, Sherrod Brown, praised Stokes and called him both "a friend and a mentor." He added:

"Lou Stokes continued to stand up for northeast Ohioans ‎long after he left Congress.‎ He'll be remembered in the communities he strengthened, the veterans he served, and the many lives he touched. Connie and I send our thoughts and prayers to his family."

Stokes was the dean of the Ohio congressional delegation until he retired in 1999. According to the Stokes family statement, he died peacefully with his wife of 55 years by his side.

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Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.