It’s a historical irony that Louis Stokes’s autobiography is being published now, just as Donald Trump has become the most prominent politician in recent memory to champion aggressive stop-and-frisk policing.
Stokes is the national treasure who first challenged stop-and-frisk before the Supreme Court. His law career was followed by three decades in Congress as Ohio’s first black representative. He died last year at age 90, only days after finishing work on his memoir.
“How interesting it is that a case my father argued decades ago has so much relevance today,” said his daughter, Lori Stokes, an anchor for New York’s ABC7 and the first black broadcaster to appear on MSNBC. “I wish he was here to address it. I wish he was here to help Mr. Trump understand that case.”
The contrasts between Trump and Stokes are fascinating and worth exploring, emblematic as they are of the discussions about race, poverty and privilege that have surfaced in this year’s presidential campaign.
Trump, of course, launched his career with millions of dollars in loans from his wealthy father.
Stokes was just three when his father died of an abdominal condition. His single mother, who worked as a maid for $8 a day, raised not one but two trailblazing sons; Louis’s brother Carl Stokes was the first African-American elected to lead a major U.S. city, winning Cleveland’s mayoral race in 1967.
When a young Trump received draft notices during the war in Vietnam, he successfully sought deferments five times.
Stokes was drafted as well, during World War II, but he served. The Army was still segregated. Black soldiers were treated poorly, forced to clean the white soldiers’ barracks and banned from combat units. “I was going to be subjected to those indignities and wouldn’t even be permitted to fight,” he recalled. “That was offensive, galling.”
One of Trump’s defining political acts was a fiery campaign against five young black men who allegedly raped a white woman in Central Park in 1989. “Bring back the death penalty!” Trump raged. The men were later found to have been wrongly accused.
For Stokes, the trial of the Scottsboro Boys ― nine black youth wrongly accused of raping two white women in 1931 ― also marked a turning point. Learning of the case as a 12-year-old made him yearn for a career in law. “I imagined myself as a lawyer traveling around from city to city to defend black people who were accused of crimes they didn’t commit,” he wrote. “That image lived in my mind; it was my dream.”
Trump lauds stop-and-frisk policing as a solution for crime in black communities. When confronted with the fact that New York’s stop-and-frisk program was ruled unconstitutional because it targeted people based on their race, Trump blamed the decision on an “anti-police judge.”
Stokes knew better; he’d been accosted by police himself for the crime of walking to a Boy Scouts meeting. “This was the treatment many black men experienced, an ongoing humiliation and violation of rights,” he wrote, explaining why he decided to challenge such aggressive practices. The case he took to the Supreme Court in 1967 “had the potential to strike at a problem that existed on the streets of every major American city.”
Trump seems to revel in embracing and promoting all matter of baseless conspiracy theories.
Stokes sought to put conspiracies to the test of evidence. He led Congress’s most comprehensive investigations into the assassinations of President John Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, often digging up crucial data to discredit various rumors and myths that surrounded those two tragedies.
Trump was twice sued by the Justice Department for refusing to allow black people to rent the apartments he owned. Over 35 years, Trump appears to have never hired a single black executive at any of his companies.
Stokes spent years building power in Congress to break down housing and employment barriers for black Americans. He played a critical role securing funding for housing in poor communities, for historically black colleges, for research into minority health disparities. Stokes confronted federal agencies from the CIA to NASA over their failures to hire minorities in senior positions.
“Had I not asked these questions, they would not have come up,” he recalled once after questioning a federal health director over his institute’s lack of focus on minority health issues. “There was, simply, insufficient concern by my white colleagues. I felt strongly that I needed to inject a concern about black lives into our deliberations.”
It is telling that in America today, Donald Trump is a household name while Louis Stokes is not. But Stokes changed history in a way that Trump has not. His work in courtrooms and in Congress affected the lives of millions.
At an event in 2008, just before the election, Stokes stepped to the podium and turned to address one of the men behind him on stage. “Senator Obama, I am 83 years old and never in my life did I think that I would live to see a qualified African-American serve as the president of the United States.” His head dropped down a little, his daughter Lori remembered. “I know how my father was overwhelmed at that moment.”
Obama stood and walked to Stokes. They embraced, and Obama whispered into his ear, “I would not be here if it were not for you and your brother.” Stokes thanked the senator. Obama replied, “No, thank you.”