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Louis Stokes: Reflections of the Life of a Transformational Leader

Louis StokesLouis Stokes

In the span of four days last month our nation lost two of its most venerable leaders in the struggle for a socially just society for all of its citizens ― first Julian Bond and then Louis Stokes.

These two courageous and committed national leaders led in the struggle for human and civil rights in different ways. Julian Bond led largely through the framework of civil disobedience and political advocacy, while Louis Stokes led principally from the vantage point of legislative and legal action.

Reflections upon their deaths should remind us that, once again, transformational change requires all types of leaders and that true leaders lead from whatever perch they have. Sometimes that perch is outfront, sometimes it’s on the sidelines, sometimes it’s in the background and sometimes it’s in the halls of negotiation and decision-making. But, wherever it is, it is leadership and it is critical to the ultimate success of a cause.

While Bond’s death was captured ― as it should have been ― as front-page news in most American newspapers, there were far fewer front-page stories on Stokes’ death. What is even more disappointing, however, is that many people, including many African-Americans, have a vague recollection, if any recollection at all, of the role that Louis Stokes played in the quest for civil rights and the quest for human dignity in our country. Many others can only recall some of the key biographical highlights of his life, e.g., “He was the first Black U.S. Congressman from Ohio” or “He was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus.” Still others confuse him with his late brother, Carl Stokes, who was the first Black mayor of Cleveland and one of the first Black mayors of a large city in the 20th century.

But there is far more to remember about Louis Stokes! He was a transformational leader who led from where he sat, which happened to be in the U.S. Congress, principally as member, and later as a subcommittee chair, of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, the committee that has oversight for all federal spending bills. It was through his work on this committee that he was able to advocate for and get legislation passed that led to the creation of the Office of Minority Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that has resulted in a mega-leap in funding and research on illnesses that have a disproportional impact on African-Americans and other marginalized groups, e.g., cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma and AIDS.

On a plaque prominently placed in a building at the NIH that houses the Louis Stokes Laboratories, the wording reads, in part, “ … His unswerving support of the National Institutes of Health is defined by judicious advocacy and a determination that through research NIH can help eliminate health disparities in health among the country’s minority, underserved and disadvantaged communities.”

Moreover, Rep. Stokes’ work on the House Appropriations Committee led to significant funding for the largest pipeline for broadening participation of students from underrepresented groups in the STEM fields at the National Science Foundation, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program. He also was a staunch advocate for the funding of federal TRIO programs, leading to increased support for such programs as Upward Bound and the McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program that prepares first-generation, low-income and minority students for doctoral students in the STEM fields. During his membership and leadership on the committee, TRIO’s funding grew from $70.3 million in FY 1976 to $562.2 in FY 1998, when he retired from Congress.

Quite notably, Louis Stokes was a major figure in securing congressional approval of $20 million to fund the building of the state-of-the-art Law Library and the Health Sciences Library (now named in his honor) at Howard University, the nation’s largest producer of African-American physicians and dentists, and a major producer of African-American Ph.D. biomedical scientists.

Louis Stokes was not especially known for carrying a picket sign or engaging in street demonstrations — although both have been important and critical tools in the fight for civil rights. Yet he, like Julian Bond, advocated for human rights and equal opportunities for African-Americans and, indeed, for all Americans.

There is a big lesson for all of us as we reflect upon the deaths of these two giants for social justice — lead from wherever you sit. In fact, sometimes the most powerful leader is the silent leader or the leader behind the scenes or even the leader with no leadership title. Even with a title, we are reminded of Nelson Mandela’s famous quote: “Lead from the back and let others believe they are in front!”

Orlando Taylor is vice president for strategic initiatives and research at Fielding Graduate University. He was a longtime professor and senior administrator at Howard University and is known throughout the country as an advocate for higher education engagement in the quest for social justice and inclusion.

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