- 4 min read
- Posted on 12.29.15
- Filed under
- Frankie Muse Freeman
- Person of the Year
- US Civil Rights Commission
- Lyndon B Johnson
- Starsky Wilson
The annual St. Louis Person of the Year poll on MayorSlay.com roughly tracks Time Magazine’s formulation that the honor go the person who ‘for better or for worse … has done the most to influence the events of the year.”
All for better, this year’s hands-down winner – legendary St. Louis Lawyer and Civil Rights Pioneer Frankie Muse Freeman – sets at least two precedents for a Person of the Year.
The honor comes less than a year before Ms. Freeman's 100th birthday. The out-sized influence she has on this community arises in part out of advice she offered to the nation nearly 50 years ago.
We visited with Ms. Freemen the week before Christmas in her sunny, spacious Central West End high rise apartment. She was on the move, preparing to head out of town to visit family.
We prevailed on her to sit down with us for just a few minutes. We had made the appointment with one question in mind.
The Person of the Year field she outpaced was heavily weighted with leading figures in the current wave of community activism, including the Rev. Starsky Wilson and the ArchCity Defenders. We were interested in the thoughts of Frankie Freeman, post-Ferguson.
What’s important for us to know about Ferguson, and the events that have followed?
She answered without hesitation. “All that I have to say about Ferguson, I wrote in a separate statement I prepared as part of a 1967 Report by the Civil Rights Commission,” she said.
Ms. Freemen had been a member of the Commission from 1964 to 1979. She lent us her U.S. Printing Office copy of the report, which had been prepared at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The topic was “Racial Isolation in the Public Schools.” In her supplementary statement, Ms. Freeman observed:
The worsening crisis in our cities is essentially a human crisis. This is a truth we tend to forget because the crisis is so often expressed in abstractions –dwindling tax revenues, housing trends, unemployment rates, statistics on air pollution, or crime and delinquency. Even in this report, which deals with a most fundamental aspect of our current urban dilemma – the crisis in public education –we have had to describe what has been happening in terms of achievement scores, graphs and figures. But it must never be forgotten that what we really have been looking at is the brutal and unnecessary damage to human lives ….
[W]e are forced, rather, to ask the harder question, whether in our present society …Negro children can prepare themselves to participate effectively in society if they grow up and go to school in isolation from the majority group. We must also ask whether we can cure the disease of prejudice and prepare all children for life in a multicultural world if white children grow up and go to school in isolation from Negroes….
If in the future the adults in our society who make decisions about who gets a job, who lives down the block, or the essential worth of another person are to be less likely to make these decisions on the basis of race or class, the present cycle must be broken in classrooms which provide better education than ever, and in which children of diverse backgrounds can come to know one another.
“You can change the dates, to today’s date, and keep everything else the same,”Ms. Freeman told us.
We asked Ms. Freeman about advice she might have for younger people engaged in social and community activism in St. Louis. Conversation turned to a stylish and instructive way she responded to adversity she faced for acting according to conscience:
In 1970, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held hearings in St. Louis County. Among the topics it considered was equal employment opportunity in government contracting.
The commission questioned whether a certain St. Louis defense contractor that had been awarded a major fighter jet contract had complied with an executive order requiring that contractors first put a comprehensive employment opportunity plan in place.
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat editorialized about the Commission’s inquiry, calling it a “Tea-Pot Tempest.”Ms. Freeman begged to differ. She responded with a letter to the editor.
“Without an acceptable Plan of Equal Employment Opportunity,”she wrote, “a contractor is not legally entitled to hold a federal contract. Asking a contractor to produce such a plan is no more unreasonable than asking that a certain standard of quality of the finished product be maintained.”
Ms. Freeman was fired from her job as general counsel of the St. Louis Housing Authority the day her letter appeared in the paper. She was made to clean out her desk by the close of business that day.
Ms. Freeman confronted this adversity with confidence. She walked into the old Stix Baer & Fuller department store. She asked to try on the best full length mink coat they had. She purchased it on credit.
Ms. Freeman knew she would be returning to the private practice of law, and the comfort of the beautiful coat combined with need to pay down the account, she believed, would provide her with extra motivation to look and move ahead.
We acknowledge being a little star struck in Ms. Freeman’s presence. We asked if she would inscribe our copy of her memoir, "A Song of Faith and Hope." Thus came the third piece of advice we received that day:
“Keep faith and hope alive,”she wrote.
Pictured: Frankie Muse Freeman from a video interview by the St. Louis Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.