Frankie Muse Freeman was a civil rights icon who served as the lead counsel in the landmark 1954 case Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority, which ended legal racial discrimination in public housing.
She was the rst woman appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and was later inducted into the Bar Association Hall of Fame, the Civil Rights Walk of Fame, and the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Ms. Freeman died Friday, Jan. 12 at the age of 101.
HEC-TV was lucky enough to capture her last interview. Look for it soon on hectv.staging.wpengine.com.
You were the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Tell us about your experience and the early days.
One of the things that people were interested in was whether I would be accepted. That was not a problem. There was never a problem with respect to race or gender as a commissioner. Not by other commissioners. But when we decided to hold hearings in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights outbreaks that had been going on, then the newspaper in Mississippi on two days had a column, there was two columns, in which they talked about the colored woman on the commission for St. Louis who needed to just stay home and solve the problems in St. Louis. They’d spend a lot of time on that.
Selma, all of that was going on, but we prepared actually the language, the three recommendations that became the Voter Rights Act of 1965. And, of course, that was in 1965. We held hearings all over the country on other issues relating to gender, relating to Hispanics, and relating to anything that was in denial of equal opportunity.
Where do you feel like we are currently in regard to race relations and racial diversity?
In terms of race relations, we have not done our job either way, because I think the value is diversity. We have to recognize who we are. We have to go to school together. We work together, but we have to recognize and respect the culture over each other. There needs to be more racial diversity.
Our problem, though, of course, is discrimination and housing, because we have much discrimination in housing. We have, still, more that should be done. We have to do more about public housing, which means that going back again, you asked me about President Johnson. He said that his priority was a war against poverty. That’s still an issue now.
But I do know that there are people who have done very little or nothing, and who don’t see anything wrong with just being all black, all white, all latino. And I think that those, “Okay, I’m all black.” But that does not mean that my friends and my culture cannot respect and love and work with people who don’t look like me.
Coming home from your mother’s funeral, you had a layover in Louisiana, where you stopped at a restaurant to eat. Tell us what happened.
They told me that I would have to leave or they would arrest me, and I said, “Arrest me.” ‘Cause I knew that my mother, who was deceased, would not have ordered me to get up there and go when they told me to go. But they didn’t. What they did was just they shut down the restaurant.
Tell us about segregation in St. Louis.
It was absolutely racially segregated, and so black people were expected to sit in the back of the bus. No way, so we walked. We walked wherever we had to go, unless we were riding in a car, but we would not … One of the things that our parents agreed was that there are things in terms of the segregation that you had no choice. But if you had a choice, you rejected it.
When did you decide to become a lawyer?
It was at Hampton that I decided that I was going to be a lawyer, because there were lawyers who were filing suit, institute lawyers that were filing suit, so I decided I was gonna go to law school, and I was gonna be a lawyer, and I was gonna work to change things. That’s what I did.
What or who got you to where you are now?
Don’t ever want to be called somebody who did it by themselves, or who was responsible. It took work. It took help. There were individuals that I could call on who helped. Whatever I’ve done, I’m blessed to have done it. I’ve taken the leadership. I said, “Yes, do this.” They said, “Oh, we can’t.” I said, “Well, yes you can. Don’t give up. Don’t give up.” And so maybe I pestered them sometimes, but they did it. And I would still do it, and I’m glad, at least, to be here to do it.