Reviewed by Nishani Frazier (Miami University of Ohio)
Published on H-FedHist (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann
My parents left Cleveland, Ohio, in 1974, but I returned to the city of my birth in 2003. That same year, I had the honor of interviewing Congressman Louis Stokes—a man whose name was legendary. I nearly prostrated before his gaze. Stokes gave me thirty minutes and no more. My first question: Tell me about your first girlfriend? He laughed, surprised by the question. I felt quite happy. I had moved Louis Stokes to laughter! That was the high point in an otherwise uninformative exchange. Stokes pointedly told me he planned to write his autobiography. I was unlikely to get much information, and I did not.
When H-FedHist requested that I write a book review on Louis Stokes’s autobiography, The Gentleman from Ohio, I enthusiastically agreed with the energetic embodiment of School House Rock’s “Interjections!” For many years, I wondered if Stokes would complete his life story, and I looked forward to his recollections about family, the civil rights movement in Cleveland, and his political rise to the esteemed position of congressman. As I expected, The Gentleman from Ohio is a beautiful testament to familial and community kinship, and an enthralling story of individual spirit. And yet, Stokes’s memoir is frustratingly silent on the making of the man.
The Gentleman from Ohio is written by Stokes with David Chanoff. Autobiographies composed with assistance seem to skirt the edge of biography by being unclear about whose voice a reader hears. Does Chanoff edit, does he write portions from interviews, or does he organize? All these questions give insight to how the story is told, which moment receives emphasis, what is hidden, or how a reader might situate Stokes’s past and future legacy. The answers may also reveal why the autobiography seems to suffer from a tension between the “American Dream” trope and the kinship/community history that sporadically materializes.
Black auto/biographies are not exempt from using the American Dream as literary device. Memoirs from the eighteenth to the latter half of the twentieth century follow a consistent structure and pattern that entails a “rags to riches” narrative that unites individual advancement with generational elevation. One is descended from slaves or sharecroppers. One soars to greater heights than previous ascendants. One sets the stage for future generations who reach even higher levels. Thus, the black American Dream narrates how we came to be, how we triumphed over time, and how offspring are left better off than ourselves.
The Gentleman from Ohio replicates this format. Chapter 1 chronicles Stokes’s intimate family ties, close friendships, and poverty-stricken childhood. His grandmother and mother formed the centerpiece of this stage and taught him powerful lessons of humility, duty, gratefulness, and graciousness. The exchanges with his mother read like memory devotions, which attest to a powerful everyday woman who birthed two kings of Cleveland black politics: Congressman Louis Stokes and his younger brother Carl Stokes, who became the first black mayor of a major urban city. Chapters 2 and 3 chart his struggle to obtain a law degree and build a clientele among the hardworking, the innocent, the poor, and the nefarious. Though his recollections about Cleveland’s number-running gangsters and underground economy workers exclude much (as well they probably should), his memories paint an enthralling portrait of the unique circumstances that cultivated his keen legal mind and own style of “hustle.”
The timely chapter 4, “Stop and Frisk,” details the 1968 landmark Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, which pit police conduct during stops against the Fourth Amendment prohibition of search and seizure. Stokes surprisingly details how Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall sided with the state and granted police broad authority to define reasonable search, though Stokes cogently argued the implications for such a judicial opinion. Marshall later regretted his judgment on the matter.
The Terry v. Ohio chapter is among the most riveting in The Gentleman from Ohio. The initiating event (1963) and decision (1968) chronologically fell after Stokes became an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Yet his history with the NAACP comes in chapter 5 after the Terry discussion. It is not quite clear why the Terry case is presented before he examines his time in the NAACP. However, its placement before Stokes’s history of Cleveland civil rights suggests that the two are unrelated to his time with the NAACP or disconnected from his maturation as a lawyer. By 1963, the year of John W. Terry’s arrest, the school segregation protest was nearly a regular occurrence along with accusations of excessive police force. Thus, the Terry v. Ohio case rests inside that moment, not separate and disconnected.
In chapter 6, “Two Brothers: Mayor and Congressman,” Stokes shares his uncertainty and ambivalence about entering politics. Though inspired by his brother’s mayoral victory, the elder sibling hesitated to run for Congress. He subsequently rethought this decision, but wavered once more when his friend and black Cleveland political trailblazer, Ken Clement, also expressed interest in the office. Louis Stokes and Clement visited Carl Stokes, now mayor and political boss, to have him determine who should be the nominee. Carl Stokes took Clement aside for an hour, then reentered the room and announced that Louis Stokes would run for Congress. The book never discusses how Clement participated in this decision nor how he took this declaration by Carl Stokes. Indeed, the text is glaringly silent on the matter.
Carl Stokes had a reputation for charm, good looks, and a no-nonsense personality. Plus, many considered him a wily politician with street credentials. These attributes quite likely played a role in Louis Stokes becoming the lead candidate for Congress. This moment may appear as neither salient nor “essential” for a reader to know about Louis Stokes, but salience does not necessarily translate as irrelevant. Political dealings, coercion, community support, racial kinship, patronage, and give-and-take exchanges illustrate how the Stokes brothers utilized power. These personal interactions give readers insight into how to understand power, how to build it, how to keep it, and how to wield it. It is an instruction manual for black political power, but much of it disappears in the telling of Louis Stokes’s life.
The seventh chapter, “Black Power,” similarly foregrounds Stokes’s congressional activities as black power, while it ignores events surrounding it. Black political power is expressed as an outcome of Stokes’s individual activities with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). But in reality, Stokes rode a wave of radical activism that ushered in black politicians across the United States. The black power movement ignited a political front, and his election to Congress and CBC’s creation was an outgrowth of that protest. Thus, Stokes did not bring black power to Congress; black power put him there.
The movement also inspired the biggest display of black political activism during the period: the Gary Convention. Stokes, along with other black politicians, played a crucial role in the event, but there is not one reference to it. Actually, neither the Gary Convention nor black power appears in the index though there is a whole chapter devoted to the philosophy’s application to CBC’s development, though not its origin.
Therein lies the uncomfortable questions surrounding the autobiography and the who of its writing and construction. The memoir’s silences and misarranged structure might well result from Stokes’s personal proclivities to protect people or assert that which he feels is most important for his legacy. However, the result is a series of historical hiccups or interruptions that improperly suppresses Cleveland’s history and determines which Louis Stokes we get to see. Is this an auto/biography of one person, his individual triumph, and eventual acquisition of the American Dream, or are we to understand the making and impact of the man? Whether by his choice or another’s, The Gentleman from Ohio excises the black experience and divides Stokes from the events of his time.
This is not to suggest that Louis Stokes was not his own person. He was self-made. And he was not. Historians credit Carl Stokes as Cleveland’s man of the people, but his brother was equally embedded in the city’s life and deeply connected to the black community. Indeed, quite a few of my own family members candidly admonished me to be “kind” in my review, especially since he legally represented and prevented many of them (both the activists and the nefarious sides) from going to jail. Though the memoir reflects his side of the relationship, it blurs Cleveland’s impact on him and disregards an essential cultural component of how a legal and political mind came into being. The “Cleveland” is gentrified out of Louis Stokes.
Despite the absent historical context, this chapter comes closest to tracing the political networks that ran from Cleveland to the national halls of power. Stokes effectively navigated a nexus of peoples and spaces from the poorest to the upper echelon and charted a path that allowed multiple groups to support his bid for Congress. Chapter 7 also hints at the intriguing political reasoning, calculations, and tactics that became an important blueprint for political power. The Stokes brothers’ tug-of-war with the Democratic Party in Ohio, for example, demonstrated this how-to strategy for empowerment, and their political shrewdness gave the black community power.
Chapter 8, “First Years in Congress,” misses an opportunity to further illustrate Stokes’s political astuteness by skirting around the Shirley Chisholm controversy. Chisholm, a CBC co-founder and New York-based congresswoman, ran for president of the United States in 1972. Her announcement agitated CBC members, and Stokes recalled that he saw Chisholm’s campaign as unrealistic and unlikely to gain the presidency. Of course, this ignored Chisholm’s point that her campaign was an assertion of black and women’s power, as well as an instrument for delegate acquisition. Instead, Stokes listed himself as the presidential candidate in his district, which gave him control of 8 delegates that he could deliver to whom he wished. At the 1972 Democratic Convention, Stokes came with his 8 delegates. Chisholm came with 152.
The numbers told the story, but it was not for nothing that Stokes kept his delegates. The Chisholm fallout with CBC had a backstory. Carl Stokes had gained national traction as the king of politics, a mover and shaker among CBC members, and potentially a candidate for higher office, even the presidency. He was at the center of caucus strategies to wield influence on presidential politics until Chisholm threw a wrench into the mix. Members subsequently were divided over her presidential candidacy because Chisholm’s decision contradicted internal strategy sessions, and undercut Louis Stokes’s baby brother.
The chapters that follow are a highlight reel of Stokes’s influence on social matters and policymaking. The Gentleman from Ohio lifts the veil on political horse trading and the tireless dedication needed to obtain resources for individual districts, as well as the broader poor and working class in America. Stokes funneled aid to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Cleveland’s Jewish community, and government departments like NASA and the National Institute for Health (NIH). Additionally, he lent political support to programs like Headstart, STEM programs for black youth, groups dealing with health-care disparities and health-care education/training, a community development corporation, and social agencies. After he retired, Stokes continued his advocacy for improved health-care access, which led to the NIH building being dedicated in his name. A lifetime of struggle was memorialized in that building’s name.
Stokes also emerged at the center of congressional investigations during the Ronald Reagan era, including inquiries into the Grenada invasion and the Iran Contra affair. Though he describes Oliver North as engaging in a “shameful masquerade” (p. 197), Stokes, as lawyer, is best showcased during North’s questioning. The moment reveals the inner workings and thinking of Stokes’s mind far better than the memoir’s summary of North’s clandestine operations.
Without question, Louis Stokes played an immeasurable role in local and national politics. He was an extraordinary person of stature who served during a critical moment in the black freedom struggle. He has earned and deserves a place in the annals of history. For that alone, one should read The Gentleman from Ohio. Still, I cannot help but feel the same way I felt after my first and only interview with Stokes. There is far more to know about the making of this man.
. Erin Blakemore, “Here’s What People Once Said about How a Woman Would Never Be the Democratic Nominee,” Time Magazine, June 7, 2016, http://time.com/4359610/shirley-chisholm-nominee/.
. Stephan Lesher, “The Short, Unhappy Life of Black Presidential Politics, 1972,” New York Times, June 25, 1972, http://www.nytimes.com/1972/06/25/archives/the-short-unhappy-life-of-black-presidential-politics-1972-black.html.
. “Iran-Contra Investigation Day 28 Part 1,” C-SPAN, July 14, 1987, https://www.c-span.org/video/?9537-1/iran-contra-investigation-day-28-part-1. Stokes’s interrogation of North begins at 1:30.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-fedhist.
Nishani Frazier. Review of Stokes, Louis, with David Chanoff, The Gentleman from Ohio.
H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews.
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