Happy 100th birthday: St. Louis NAACP celebrates attorney Frankie Muse Freeman
This article first appeared in the St. Louis American, and is used with permission:
Frankie Muse Freeman’s mother once shared a poem with her.
“There’s a line, ‘It shows in your face,’” Freeman said during a Black History Month talk at Anheuser-Busch in 2010. “However you live, it shows on your face. That was the theme that I tried to show through the experiences of my life.”
Freeman included the poem in the last chapter of her book, “A Song of Faith and Hope” ‒ a memoir of more than 60 years as a civil rights attorney and freedom fighter.
On Nov. 24, the beloved St. Louis icon will turn 100 years old, and she plans to spend the day quietly, said her daughter Shelbe Bullock.
“She is grateful to God,” Bullock said. “She has very strong faith. And being given this much life and the ability to impact so many people, she wants to spend it in contemplation.”
However, on Saturday, Oct. 22, the St. Louis City NAACP is throwing Freeman an anything-but-quiet 100th Birthday Bash at the St. Louis Marriott Grand Hotel, where dignitaries from all over will come to celebrate, and the public is invited to join in as well.
"Attorney Frankie Muse Freeman tackled civil rights issues like the work of a blacksmith, forging a brighter future for society and bending the iron will of those who would oppose such," said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP.
Freeman would be the first to say that the festivities are too much, Pruitt said, “when in reality it is probably too little.”
Her "just due" from the NAACP will cumulate in the spring of 2017 in Kiener Plaza downtown with the unveiling of a Frankie Freeman statute, he said.
Freeman has received countless awards, including being inducted into the International Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2007.
President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1964, making her the first woman on the commission. As a commissioner for 16 years, she led hearings throughout the country on issues of segregation, affirmative action and equal rights. Prior to this position, she worked on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s legal team on important civil rights cases, including Davis et al v. the St. Louis Housing Authority, which ended legal racial discrimination in public housing.
Dr. William H. Danforth, Washington University chancellor emeritus, is a co-chair of the birthday party.
“It’s a big event when she reaches 100,” Danforth said. “Of all the people, I can’t think of anyone who is more universally admired. She has always been absolutely true to her beliefs and her principles.”
Danforth and Freeman co-chaired a committee for monitoring and advising St. Louis Public Schools for over a decade.
“A lot of our recommendations were followed, and without Frankie’s name and her conviction, it wouldn’t have been so successful,” Danforth said. “She’s fearless. She moves in and does what she thinks is right.”
As a student at Howard University Law School, she decided she would become a civil rights lawyer because “someone had to do something,” she said at the Anheuser-Busch talk. Freeman was admitted to the Missouri Bar Association in 1948, and she opened her law office in 1949.
'I opened my own law office because I was not able to get associated with any of the law firms. I'm not sure if it was race or gender.' Frankie Muse Freeman
“I opened my own law office because I was not able to get associated with any of the law firms,” she said. “I’m not sure if it was race or gender. Because if it was one of the white firms, it was definitely race. But for the black firms, it was just that I was female. I happen to be black and female, so therefore I was determined.”
When she opened the office, she was the sole practitioner. “That’s how I got a job handling the civil rights cases,” she said.
Her work to establish equality in education goes back to the 1960s, when Freeman served as one of the U.S. commissioners on Civil Rights from 1964 to 1980.
In 1965, President Johnson asked the commission to conduct a study on racial isolation in the public schools. After conducting hearings and studies around the country, the commission gave its report to the president, with a supplementary statement from Freeman.
Freeman stated to the president, “The schools are critical in determining what kind of society this will be.”
She said schools are fertile ground for preventing people from making decisions based on race – decisions like who gets the job, who lives down the block and even the essential worth of a person.
“They would be less likely to make decisions based on race or class if they get to know one another,” she stated to the president. “The cycle must be broken in classrooms.”
'The schools are critical in determining what kind of society this will be.' Frankie Muse Freeman to President Johnson
In her statement, she said our country is on a “collision course” created by a divided education system based on economic background and race. It can be resolved by combining resources and efforts. Her statement was made in February 1967 – nearly 50 years ago.
“It could also be said today,” Freeman said, when she accepted the 2011 St. Louis Citizen of the Year Award. “Nothing is more important to the growth of our region than the strong, healthy and effective education system in the City of St. Louis.”
Just like Freeman, Bullock has a phrase that her mother gave to her, and she’s used it countless times. She remembers when Freeman gave it to her.
“One time when I was in the midst of a divorce, she came to my dance performance and brought a bottle of wine with a note attached,” Bullock said. “It said, ‘Keep your hand on the plow and hold on.’”
Now she posts it at her office and other places.
“It means don’t give up,” she said. “Do your homework, and don’t give up. Obstacles are just something to go around or go through. Don’t let it stop you.”
Frankie Freeman’s 100th Birthday Bash takes place Saturday, Oct. 22 at the Marriott St. Louis Grand Hotel, 800 Washington Ave. The reception begins at 5:30 p.m. and dinner and program at 6:30 p.m. For tickets, call 314-361-8600.