May 01, 2015 Waymaker

Civil Rights Pioneer: Frankie Muse Freeman

By Judge Nannette A. Baker

Frankie Muse Freeman’s accomplishments are too numerous to list, but I will try to do justice to her life and legacy. Freeman was born in the segregated South in 1916. Her college-educated parents encouraged her to become an attorney and supported her education, first at Hampton Institute and later at Howard University School of Law, where she graduated second in her class in 1947. As one of the first women in the legal profession in St. Louis, Missouri, Freeman had a passion for civil rights cases. Early in her career, she became part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) legal team that challenged discriminatory laws. In 1954, she was lead attorney for the landmark NAACP case Davis et al. v. The St. Louis Housing Authority, which ended legal racial discrimination in public housing in St. Louis. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Freeman to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She was the first woman to serve on the Commission and was reappointed by presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.

Throughout her life, Mrs. Freeman has worked tirelessly for the cause of racial justice and equality. She was instrumental in forming the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, a group committed to ending racial discrimination and devising remedies that would counteract its harmful effects. In 1999, Mrs. Freeman led (with William H. Danforth) a task force to oversee a landmark settlement that ended segregation in the St. Louis public schools. In 2006, the pair also led an advisory committee to analyze and improve the St. Louis schools.

Mrs. Freeman was inducted into the National Bar Association’s Hall of Fame in 1990. She received the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP in 2011, and in 2014 she received the Spirit of Excellence Award from the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. In 2003, Mrs. Freeman wrote a book about her life and career, A Song of Faith and Hope: The Life of Frankie Muse Freeman. Now, at the age of 98, Mrs. Freeman remains engaged in public service. In February 2015, President Barack Obama appointed Mrs. Freeman to serve as a member of the Commission on Presidential Scholars. Her impact on St. Louis and the nation at large will be felt for generations to come. Frankie Muse Freeman is a true inspiration and is a Waymaker in every sense of the word.

I’d like to start by asking you when you knew that you would become a lawyer.

Well, I grew up in Danville, Virginia, which was racially segregated. It was the last capital of the confederacy. When it came to transportation, our parents said, “No, no, you don’t get on the bus, so you walk,” you know. That was just the way. . . .

So you walked . . . instead of sitting in the back of the bus.

Oh yeah. And then my parents were active in the NAACP and they . . . they were tireless. And so seeing their work, I think that probably when I was in high school was when I said I’m going to be a lawyer.

The decision was made; there was nothing else that I was going to do. Then there was an interruption, when I went from Hampton to New York because I had been told that I was admitted to St. John’s. However, when I got there, I was told that they didn’t accept Hampton’s credits, so I didn’t go to law school there.

I understand you met your husband Shelby during this time?

I was living with my aunt and was just doing part-time secretarial work until I decided what I wanted to do. Adam Powell had established a group of younger people at a church to protest some of the things that were happening. I became a member of that group, although that was not a part of the church; it was just a group that met regularly. And that was where I met my husband. He had recently graduated from Lincoln University and had decided to go to graduate school. But, of course, the University of Missouri denied him. They said, we won’t accept you, but we’ll pay you to go somewhere else. So they paid the tuition for him to go to New York University to do his graduate work.

You were living in New York?

That was in New York. I met Shelby in New York and we got married [in 1938], actually, to the disappointment of my parents, who wanted me to go to law school. This was during the beginning of World War II.

You eventually moved to Washington, D.C.?

We were living in New York and then Shelby decided that he was going to at least apply for one of the positions in Washington. In the meantime, we had a daughter and we moved to Washington. I think it was early in 1941 and right when World War II started.

While working in Washington, I met a friend of mine from Danville who had known me for a while and who said to me, “What are you doing here?” I told him what I was doing and he said, “What about the law school? What’s your problem?” I took a half a day off right after he said that and went down to the university and asked to see the dean in person. I told him that I wanted to go to law school. He said, “Mrs. Freeman, have you applied?” And I looked at him and I felt so stupid because I realized what I had done. I was taking the time of the day to do something that I shouldn’t have done.

When I got home, I told Shelby that I wanted to go to law school. The first thing we talked about was the money, but he said okay. So I called my parents, who were prepared to pay. But I had disappointed them by not going to law school earlier and I realized that. When I told them what I wanted to do, after they hesitated, they said, “Whatever you need, you’ll get.”

You went to Howard Law School then?

Definitely, I went to Howard Law School. I thought maybe I could work full time and be a wife and mother, but it took me about two months before I realized that I could not work and go to law school. And what happened was that between my husband’s family and ours, we had enough resources, so I got a family member to come and stay with us. It was worked out and I was admitted to law school. I was determined since I had delayed so long that I was going to do everything I could and be the best that I could be.

And you graduated second in your class.

That’s right, in 1947.

Did you all move to St. Louis after that?

We moved, yes. I graduated in May ’47, and then in 1948 I took the Missouri bar, passed the Missouri bar, and was admitted to the Missouri bar in December. We moved to Missouri in 1948.

What happened when you looked for jobs in St. Louis?

Yes, because of my ranking and many people who I knew, law firms here told me that they had given them my name. So when I came here, I tried to contact the large firms, the white firms and nothing. I also contacted the black firms, and some of them were saying that I could work for them; I could do their research. I told them I’m going to be a trial lawyer. I was determined because when I was in law school, Thurgood Marshall and the rest of them came down during my senior year and tried a case before the Supreme Court. There would be three or four of them, the night before they would go to argument, and I wanted to be one of those. So, for me, there was no question but that I was going to be a trial lawyer. So when the firms said they’d be glad to work with me, but I couldn’t get a job, I said to Shelby, “I’m going to open my own law firm.” And I opened my own law office in June of 1949. I had my name, Frankie Freeman, on the window and I was ready and I made the announcement.

What was it like?

The first person who walked into my office was looking for a lawyer. He said, “I’m looking for a lawyer.” So, “I’m a lawyer.” “I don’t want no woman.” And he walked out.

After that, another lawyer took me down and introduced me to the judges and I told them just what I wanted to do but that I would accept appointments if they wanted to appoint me to something where I would get the experience but not the pay.

Did you get appointments?

I did. For two years, I handled criminal defense cases. During that time, I handled civil cases as well. I also met Scovel Richardson and another three lawyers who were heading the NAACP. I told them that I would be willing to work with them on any cases.

So that’s when you began to work with the NAACP?

That’s how I got started. My first case in which I was involved was against the St. Louis City Board of Education, Brewton v. Board of Education. And so we won that, but it was filed in the circuit court. We went to the (Missouri) Supreme Court and won the case. The Supreme Court sent back to St. Louis and told them they could not have a course in airplane mechanics for white students and not for black students, so the school closed it down for the white students rather than comply with the court order.

In the meantime, at the national NAACP office, I met Constance Baker Motley. There was segregation in the housing projects . . . Carr Square Village was for blacks only. Clinton Peabody on the Southside was for whites only. And they were going to build more housing, but the war had interrupted that. But then they had started back and Cochran was going to be opened in 1952. By then many soldiers were back and there were families who needed public housing. So the NAACP decided that they would at least represent those families. Constance Baker Motley and I became the lead attorneys. We interviewed the families and we filed a suit on behalf of 15; the case was Davis v. St. Louis Housing Authority, which ended segregation in public housing in St. Louis.

You received publicity because there were two women arguing the case?

Yes, I argued the case with Constance Baker Motley. The black papers had a lot about the fact that there were two women. Well, we went on to many other cases, but that one got extra attention.

You have done so many civil rights cases and you mentioned being involved with the NAACP when you were much younger. So when you said that you wanted to be a trial lawyer, did you always know that you wanted to do civil rights cases?

Oh yes, yes, yes. I always knew I was going to handle the civil rights cases. You know, that was actually, I think, the focus. But I knew also that I was going to be a lawyer and I was going to handle anything, and I did. In the three or four years I took criminal cases, I had a family, and in the criminal cases, you’d get the calls at 3:00 in the morning. So then I realized that was not something that I wanted to do.

You were the first woman to be appointed to the Civil Rights Commission. How did that come about?

After we won the Davis case, and because I had not known what was going to happen during the trial, I had gone to Washington to get sworn in to practice before the Supreme Court. But we won it, so the president of the Housing Authority called me about three months after that and said, “Frankie, you won it. We’re not appealing and I’m going to offer you a job.” I was ready for a job by that time. I think for all of the time we had spent with the NAACP and on the Davis case, I think I had received a total of about $1,000.

So, you took the job at the St. Louis Housing Authority?

So I was employed as the associate general counsel of the St. Louis Housing Authority in 1956 until 1970, which was where I was employed when the Civil Rights Commission was created in 1958. Of the six-member Commission, the six were all men, which usually were five white and one black.

Mr. President Kennedy, when he was campaigning, said that when he was elected, his appointments would include more women. In the meantime, there were people who knew of me from the work that I had been doing personally, and that I was active as a Democrat, too. You know, not campaigning, but at least known. I knew black people who were in Washington also in the Democratic Committee. So apparently somebody had given my name when Kennedy was elected and when he was considering the Commission. Anyway, I went to the White House and met with a member of Kennedy’s staff because they were letting me know I was being considered for nomination for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

What happened next?

The next week, there were assassinations, so I thought it was all over with. However, in February of the following year, President Johnson was going to be in St. Louis at the invitation of the Democratic Party. At my office at the St. Louis Housing Authority, I received a call from the White House that the president would be in St. Louis and wanted to meet with me. It was the following day and he wanted to meet with me at 5:00. Shelby and I had tickets for the dinner and we were planning to share a table with a group of friends. I called Shelby and told him I had gotten this call and that I was going to leave the office early and for him to leave the office early.

Tell me about meeting President Johnson.

I met with President Johnson in the suite in the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, where he told me about all that he wanted to do. He told me he had asked Roy Wilkens about me, he had asked Whitney Young. But he had not told them what the position was because if he had told them that, they would have given him the name of a man.

Really? That’s surprising.

They all had good things to say about me. And so then he told me that he wanted me to be on the Commission. I knew the commissioners included Father Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame; Erwin Griswold, the president of Harvard; and John Hannah, the president of Michigan State. And I said, “Oh my gosh, they are all presidents, all top positions.” And he said, “Oh, you can handle those deans.” That’s exactly how he said it. By that time I had relaxed and I could talk to him. I said I would be honored. But he said, “You know, the FBI’s going to check you out and all. They will have to know the names of any organizations. For instance, what are some of the organizations?” I said, “I’m a Baptist.” That’s all I could think of. (laughter) He said, “That’s okay.”

Then he said, “Let me tell you what I want.” He talked to me and related his plans for a war against poverty. He talked and talked and talked. There was a knock on the door and [someone] said, “Mr. President, it’s time to go downstairs.” So then they took him, and someone else took me downstairs and I went to the table, sat down next to Shelby, and went through the dinner. And it was not until the next morning on the front page of the paper they talked about the fact that I had met with the president. Nobody knew, not even the people we were having dinner with.

So you dealt with voting rights when you were on the Civil Rights Commission . . .

I dealt with voting rights. I dealt with discrimination. I dealt with segregation matters. I’ve heard it all.

So you were on the Commission for about 16 years?

I’d say 16 years I was on the Civil Rights Commission, up until 1970. [At that point] I left the Housing Authority because of a Commission hearing in which there had been a testimony involving McDonnell Douglas. McDonnell Douglas did not have a contract, and the Air Force had to have a contract that provided for equality, but they did not have one. So we questioned it and the contract was suspended. But after it was suspended, they got themselves together and a new contract was written.

In the meantime, however, The Globe Democrat had an editorial because we had caused the contract to be suspended. They said this was a tempest in a teapot. So I wrote a letter to The Globe Democrat as a commissioner who lived in St. Louis and who knew the facts. I wrote a letter to the editors, and I said they should have had a contract that was acceptable and they didn’t really take it seriously, nor did they comply with the rules. After the contract was suspended, the Department of the Air Force got the contract 10 days later.

The day that my letter appeared in the paper in which I defended the fact that they were without the contract, I got a letter signed by all the commissioners of the Housing Authority terminating my position as of that day. So I was terminated at the St. Louis Housing Authority in 1970. However, as I said, it was only 10 days later that they got themselves together. And because they had to comply, then they got themselves also some people who look like you.

What were the most significant cases or issues that you dealt with when you were on the Civil Rights Commission?

Well, first of all, I said voting because of all the protests that were going on. But you see protests don’t make legislation. My first hearing was in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1965 in which there were two counties in Mississippi where there was not even one black person that was registered to vote. So the issue was not only the discrimination and violence as a result, it was the fact of the denial of the right to vote.

We held hearings there for about a week and we subpoenaed 30 witnesses and brought in all kinds of testimony as a result of this. We even had the people who were the registrars who gave them the examination. We subpoenaed them and had them attempt to interpret the Constitution. We found that the person who was reading it couldn’t interpret it. And that was the person who was denying the right to vote. On the basis of that, we submitted a report to the president and the Congress which included three recommendations that then became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s where the Voting Rights Act came from.

I understand your contributions were recently recognized by Senator McCaskill.

Yes. There was a resolution last year from the Senate commemorating the 50th anniversary of when I was confirmed by the Senate.

And then I got a letter from the president.

And now the Supreme Court has . . .

Diminished voting rights. And that’s a responsibility of the people, and there are younger people who now, I think because of some of the things that have happened with [the City of] Ferguson, are paying attention to the issues of problems with racial segregation and education. We have discrimination and lack of adequate education. We still have so much going on. And one of the things that is happening now, in the Ferguson case, is that there’s more recognition of it and there’s more work that is being done. More diversity is needed. In 1967 when we issued a report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, I issued a supplementary statement in that report calling for the need for racial diversity. I’ve got a copy of that old report, and I could read that report now and take off the date.

The same issues after all of these years.

Yes, and one of the problems is that not only has the majority population not done all it should, we have not done our share. There is individual responsibility that we have not accepted.

Wouldn’t you have thought by the year 2015 that we would have achieved more, that we would have less discrimination and less segregation?

Yes. But, you see, there have been some achievements. However, there is a larger percentage of poor people, there’s a larger percentage of minority people, there are more issues. What happens is that we talk a lot about the middle class but, again, as I think about what President Lyndon Johnson said to me February 12, 1964: We need a vicious, a very sturdy war against poverty, which requires more than the usual that has been done. Just don’t give turkeys on Thanksgiving, although there’s nothing wrong with the turkey.

Right. (laughing) But it seems now we have more income inequality than we even had in 1964?

I don’t know; it all depends, you see. Some people have benefited, but everybody has a duty to not only do your best, but you have the duty to give and share. And I think that we have not done that. And my prayer is order my steps, help me to be of service, help me to make a difference. That means that if I see something that needs to be done, if I can do it. . . . Now, at my age, it means there are a whole lot of things that I see that need to be done that there’s nothing I can do about but pray for.

So what would you have the rest of us do about it, if you could do something?

I don’t have it in lessons for everybody because I think, do your homework. People don’t read. They don’t know history. One of the things that somebody said to me, “We want to ask you some questions because you’ve been there.” But, you see, they’ve written books and books and books and books. And maybe I’ve been there, but when we grew up, I was blessed with the fact that our parents had books. Every book that was issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights I donated to Harris Stowe State University and they have the Civil Rights Library. I don’t know how many people have read it. But I think one of the duties is we ought to read some history.

Yes, the issue is who’s writing the history? That sometimes is the problem.

That, of course, is true. It’s true today. The government in Washington is writing the history. But still, many of us know who’s writing it and then, of course, one part of it is that the person who’s writing history, we know they’re wrong. So why don’t we write something?

That’s a good point. And that’s why you’ve written your book. I mentioned the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights case—do you think we still have problems in that area?

Absolutely. And they have to be dealt with. Don’t leave everything to the Department of Justice. In every state, there should be people who are concerned and do something about it.

It is amazing to me how quickly people do forget the history. My parents met in Alabama and they had major barriers to voting. I have gone out to speak to groups of young people who would say, “Why should I vote? What good does it do for me to vote?” And I would try to talk to them about the history, my personal history, and they just don’t think it does any good.

See, right there, the fact that that’s past now. [Now’s] the time to at least deal with the school system.

Right.

In that you’ve got this question: What is happening in school? What courses are there? What is the teacher doing? Do something with the pastor of the church. Now I know we talk in church about John and Acts and all of that, but we need to find some time during Sunday school or some other time of the week that you can talk about our history. Some of the organizations, the Deltas and Zetas and Alphas, those mostly black organizations need to do something about what we’re doing with the young people as well after we have done some homework for ourselves.

That’s a good idea because it appears to me that some of the problems that occurred in Ferguson are a result of people not being engaged in the system.

Absolutely. And that is true in many communities. North, south, east, and west.

People don’t understand how important it is to vote in their local elections. And to me it’s one of the most important elections because those are the people that you can call on the phone.

Absolutely.

Your aldermen, your mayor.

That’s right.

And people will vote in the presidential election because that’s where the money is spent and that’s what gets everyone’s attention.

In Ferguson, only 7 percent voted. Now, I’m hoping that the population of people who live there know that they made a mistake. But that doesn’t mean some people can’t be unhappy one day and forget about it the next.

Right.

So it has to be a continuing day, day, day. You’re sick of it . . . yes, I’m sick of it. But are you registered to vote?

Exactly. Well, I appreciate your time. It’s been wonderful talking with you and I think we have a lot more work to do.

Oh yes. Absolutely. But the point is, do it.