The year 1968 could fill volumes citing the troubled life on our seismic planet. The war in Vietnam was going badly. Lyndon Johnson dismissed himself as a candidate for reelection. Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s wife Lurleen died. She had been chosen as the interim governor when her uber-segregationist husband was limited by law to two successive terms. (He returned later.)
America’s cities erupted in riotous protests when two icons of the civil-rights movement, Martin Luther King, and a few months later, Robert Kennedy, were assassinated.
It also was the year that a gentle African-American lawyer, Louis Stokes, from Cleveland’s tattered East Side, became the first black Ohioan in history to be elected to Congress. Only a year earlier, his picture-perfect cool younger brother Carl had been elected as the first big-city black mayor in America. Working as an Akron political reporter in Cleveland, I witnessed a frenzied past-midnight experience that burned into my memory.
Two brothers – one of them Hollywood flashy with a blinding smile, the other with a shy grin, reflective, and modest in any crowd – had secured a place in the history books in the troubled progress of civil rights.
Lou passed on at 90 this week after calling Brent Larkin of the Plain Dealer with a polite request for Brent to write his obituary. The congressman did not presume to ask many favors of his friends and steadfastly carried out his responsibilities to his constituents for 30 years on Capitol Hill.
He co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus and later became chairman of the group that steadily gained influence in a chamber long dominated by white guys. He retired from Congress in 1998. A year later, he joined the faculty of the Case Western Reserve Faculty University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.
Back in Ohio, the Democratic Party was, as usual, at war with itself during the 70s. The headlines bore the names of such combatants as Howard Metzenbaum, John Glenn, Jack Gilligan and Frank King – the latter a hot-headed but influential labor leader who was president of the Ohio-AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party’s senate leader in Columbus. (Gilligan once remarked with graveyard humor that his party was happy to hurl dead cats at each other! Nothing much has since changed.)
King was strictly old-school politics and never forgave the others for not rewarding him as a clear choice to run for governor. His temperamental behavior came to a head in a meeting of prominent party members and officehoders in Cleveland. The topic of the agenda: changes in the party’s delegate selection plan that would, among other things, provide more opportunities for blacks.
I happened to be seated next to Lou Stokes and as King buzzed on from the rostrum and I could feel the congressman’s arm tense up. In the only moment that I ever witnessed him bursting out of character, Stokes leapt of his feet, pointing his finger and shouting to King. He profanely called him a racist, and in the silence of the next moment, returned to his chair and sat down, quivering. That blistering instance was evidence that even this civil public man of many courtesies could be provoked beyond restraint.
Given the malignancy in the U.S. Congress as the uncivil Republican caucus often crosses the line in ugly assaults on a black president, it would be quite a departure from their reputation as rowdies if Lou Stokes, a good and self-effacing man, could still be there.
(P.S. A revolt within the Ohio AFL-CIO threw Frank King out of office in 1974 at the union’s raucus convention in Cleveland in which his opponents paraded past the stage with upraised arms and middle fingers as their stone-faced dethroned leader looked on.)
Reprinted From Grumpy Abe