Frankie Muse Freeman is a civil rights attorney in St Louis Missouri. She was the first woman to serve on the US Commission on Civil Rights. She won the case that ended segregation in public housing in St Louis. Instead of sitting in the “colored” section of the bus, Frankie walked. Instead of making a scene when she was denied service at coffee shops or restaurants, she promised “Later for you” and got busy changing laws. Mrs. Freeman knew the root of the problem was unjust and unconstitutional laws. So she fought to change them.
She has been called an icon, a trailblazer, and a hero. I call her beautiful.
A rough childhood
Sister Ebo was born Elizabeth Louise (she was called Betty Lou) on April 10, 1924. Her mother taught her about God and had her baptized in the Baptist church. Elizabeth’s mom passed away when Elizabeth was just 4 years old, and her father lost his job as a library janitor shortly after. Unable to keep their home in Bloomington, Illinois, Elizabeth’s father put her and her two siblings in McLean County Home for Colored Children. In the home, a boy nicknamed “Bishop” was the first to expose Elizabeth to Catholicism. He wasn’t allowed to openly practice his faith in the home, but that didn’t stop him. One day, he and Elizabeth were sent on an errand to pick up some day old bread. On the way, he slipped into a Catholic church, knelt at the Communion rail, and prayed. Sister Ebo recalls:
He was longing for his church. I cased the joint, and it was beautiful. The sun was shining that day through the stained glass windows and I knew all those stories. I was interested in everything in that church…Bish was explaining while he knelt at the Communion rail about this little house (tabernacle) where Jesus was kept, and that the bread became Jesus during the words in Scripture–that was the difference… I had already joined the Baptist Church and only had Communion the first Sunday of te month, and it was cracker crumbs and grape juice…Communion in the Catholic Church becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and nobody else was telling me that.
It was on that day, at the tender age of 9, that Elizabeth knew she would be Catholic one day.
As a child, Elizabeth battled tuberculosis in her thumb and was in and out of the hospital for treatment. While in the hospital, Elizabeth asked nurse Mary Southwick if a visiting priest could come by her room. The priest and nurse would become a pivotal figures in Elizabeth’s life, teaching her about Catholicism, and later helping her get into Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Bloomington.
The children’s home where Elizabeth had been staying did not welcome her back once she decided to join the Catholic Church. As a result, she was sent to live with a couple of older African-American women, where she stayed until she finished high school. She was the first African American to graduate from her high school.
She recalls her experiences with segregation:
Segregation for us was like going to Woolworth’s and ordering a hamburger. At that time, if you went with a white friend, they would bring it to you on a plate. If you went by yourself, the order was packaged in a brown to-go bag. Known as ‘the brown bag treatment,’ that was to let me know that they didn’t serve colored (people) in that store.
Starting her career
After graduating high school, Elizabeth wanted to attend a Catholic nursing school, but was rejected because of her race. She remembers, “They told me they had never admitted a colored girl before.” School officials didn’t talk to her about her previous studies or her academic capabilities, but rather focused on the color of her skin. It was experiences like this that Sister Ebo remembers as “bruises” that she carried with her throughout life.
She entered the United States Cadet Nurse Corps at St Mary’s Infirmary in 1942. It was a three year program designed to train replacements for volunteer nurses who were serving in the war. She remembers these days and nights as “hectic. Maybe you would get a nap in, and the rest of the time you were either on duty or in a classroom.”
In 1946, Elizabeth was one of the first three African American women to enter the Sisters of St. Mary in St Louis (now the Franciscan Sisters of Mary); she became Sister Mary Antona. In 1962 she earned her degree in medical records administration from St Louis University. In the early 60s Sister Antona served as the assistant administrator of St Mary Infirmary, and she was given the position of Director of Medical Records in 1965. At that time, she was the first black supervisor ever to be in charge of any department at St. Mary’s.
Sister heads to Selma
Sister Antona always listened to her employees, and the Monday morning of March 8th, 1965 was no different. She listened as her employees talked about what had happened in Selma the previous day, on what would become known as Bloody Sunday. She listened as they told her about the protesters who were attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to call attention to voting discrimination that was rampant in the area. Marchers were brutally attacked by police, and several were hospitalized. She remembers her first thought as being, “If I wasn’t in this habit, I would be down there with my people.” Little did she know, she would soon have her chance.
Despite her initial gusto, Sister Ebo had her doubts about going to Alabama. Firstly, she was in her 40s and busy running the medical records department at St Mary’s. Besides, she knew how the protesters had been treated on Bloody Sunday, and she had heard about people like Emmet Till, a 14 year old black boy who was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for reportedly flirting with a white woman. In Selma, a young white minister had been beaten along with the other marchers. She thought if they could do that to him, what would they do to her? She also knew that if she or any of her friends from the St Louis group were arrested, she would be segregated from them in jail. “If they get arrested, they’ll be together. If I get arrested, I’ll be alone.”
What she may not have known was that Selma was the headquarters of the White Citizen’s Council. The council was bent on maintaining white supremacy, but in a more “genteel” fashion than their friends in the Klu Klux Klan. Their unofficial motto was, “Why burn a cross, when you can foreclose a mortgage?”
The tensions in Selma were already high by the time Dr King came on the scene. In fact, marches and demonstrations had been going on since late 1963. So much so, that an injunction was passed in July of 1964 banning mass meetings in churches (generally accepted as the headquarters of the protesters), and public protesting about voting rights. Yep, you read that right. The government in Selma effectively negated their citizens’ right to peaceful assembly. Sheriff Clark and Mayor Smitherman did not budge on enforcing these new laws. When it was publicized that only 300 of the estimated 15,000 adult black population of Selma was registered to vote, a federal court ordered Selma to register 100 voters per day. This did not sit well with many, and black protesters moved their meeting place to nearby Marion. When Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot in Marion, the protests in Slema gained new life. Many thought they should march Jimmy’s body right to the state capital, to show the governor just what was happening in Slema. And so, the idea to march from Selma to Montgomery was born. The first march was led by John Lewis Hosea Williams, and ended at the bottom of Edmund Pettus bridge in what would be remembered as Bloody Sunday.
Sister Ebo had every reason to be scared. She had just voted in St Louis, and part of her felt like what was happening in Selma wasn’t her fight. But Sister Ann Christopher felt differently. She was teaching and living in the black community in St Louis at the time. When she heard about what happened on Bloody Sunday she immediately felt she needed to be there. After Dr King called for clergy to join him in Selma, it was decided that several priests from St Louis would go. Sister Ann asked the father in charge of her parish if she could join them. The priest called Cardinal Ritter, and Ritter answered that not only should Sister Ann accompany the priests, but sisters from each parish in St Louis should be sent as well.
When Sister Ebo’s superior first asked her if she would like to go, she remembers answering, “No, I would not like to go to Selma. I know I do a lot of fussing, but I don’t feel bad enough to want to go down there and be a martyr for somebody’s rights.” But even as she was saying those words, it was “coming into (her) mind that it was bigger than voting rights. It was the right to be self-determining.” In the documentary, Sisters of Selma she says, “It is one thing to have a right on a piece of paper, but if you cannot express that right in the way you live, the way you vote, the way you are self-determining, something has to give.” All the same, Sister Ebo was terrified.
Her fear was soon trumped by her faith. For her, the question of getting involved in social justice is answered in Matthew 25:31-46 when Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” She felt that she had to take a position, and that position had to be based on faith. She felt that, as a Catholic, it was her responsibility to meet her brothers and sisters in Christ, and “realize we all come from the same God.” She felt she had a “responsibility to speak up and become part of the response.” Her response was supported by the Second Vatican Council, who had encouraged sisters to get out of their ivory towers and out of their habits and into the communities they were serving.
With over 50 delegates, the St Louis contingent was the largest to respond to Dr King’s call for religious leaders to come to Selma and join the second attempt to march to Montgomery. Sister Ebo was one of only six nuns, and the only African American woman in the group. The sisters and priests were joined by leaders from various denominations and arrived in Selma on March 10th. When Sister Ebo stepped off the plane in Slema, a priest there thought, “Oh my God. This is going to make a difference.” They met the rest of the marchers at Brown Chapel AME, where crowds parted as minister Andrew Young introduced Sister Ebo and she was seated in a place of honor at the pastor’s chair in the sanctuary. The St Louis group was asked to lead the march that day, with the sisters front and center.
The sisters led the way as the group set out on the second attempt to cross over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery. They had men surrounding them, for their own protection. The men were afraid that the crowd would push the sisters forward, and they had their backs. But the group didn’t get far. Contrary to the re-telling of the second march in the movie Slema, Dr King did not lead the group, and the bridge was not opened to them. In fact, the Mayor stopped them before they reached the line of state troopers just ahead. He reminded them of the law against marching in protest and said that he expected that law to be followed. It was then that someone had the idea that the religious leaders should “bear witness” as to why they were marching. And it was then that Sister Ebo became an icon when a broadcaster recorded an exchange between her and local government agents. She told them:
We are here from St Louis to demonstrate and to witness our love to our fellow citizens in Selma. We are here, secondly, to protest the violation of rights. I am Negro and very proud. I feel it a privilege to be here today. I am Sister Mary Antona from St Louis, Missouri, and I stay at St Louis Infirmary. I might say that yesterday, being a Negro, I voted. And I’d like to come here today and say that every citizen–Negro as well as white–should be given the right to vote. That’s why I’m here today.
The entire group then knelt to say the Our Father, and made their way back to the church. Their march was short, but their impact was immense.
Finally, a federal court order was issued to allow the march, and President LB Johnson pledged his support. National Guard troops as well as U.S. Army troops protected the marchers on their four day journey to Montgomery.
It would be another 40 years before Sister Ebo would fulfill her desire to cross the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge that spanned the Alabama river and led to Montgomery.
The image of Sister Ebo marching in Slema that day would become an icon. She remembers:
It turned out that the habit was what got everyone’s attention very quickly, because nuns had not been seen doing anything like that before. It didn’t ring a bell with me that we were getting involved in something hysterical and historical.
There is no doubt Sister Ebo is glad she went. She has said, “The one thing I didn’t want to do was to become a sweet little old nun that was passing out holy cards and telling people ‘I’ll pray for you’ and not really having mastered or developed an expertise in being a caregiver from a good theological base.” And develop an expertise she did…
Life after Selma
When she returned home to St Louis, Sister Ebo picked up right where she left off, but seemed to do so with even more gusto.
In 1968 she helped found the National Black Sisters’ Conference (she would later serve as President).
She earned her Master’s degree in hospital executive development from St Louis University in 1970.
In 1976 she was appointed as the executive director of the St Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin. She was the first African American woman religious to head any Catholic Hospital in the nation.
After some health problems of her own, she decided she wanted to stop paper-pushing, so she got her second Master’s degree, this time in theology of health care in 1978 from Aquinas Institute of Theology and began serving as hospital chaplain. In a 1978 article in the Catholic Herald Citizen, she compared her position as chaplain to that of a clown, “Clowns don’t do a lot of talking. They’re quiet. they bring happiness by smiling in a way that is both happy and sad. It’s a wry smile that says, “I’ve experienced life– both the gladness and the sadness. I’m human just like you.“
In 1989 the National Black Sisters’ Conference presented her with the Harriet Tubman Award, and described her as being “called to be a Moses to the people.”
In 2000, at the 35th anniversary of what came to be known as the “Right to Vote” Bridge Crossing, she was honored with the Living Legend Award by the Voting Rights Institute in Selma.
In 2002 she received the Distinguished Humanitarian Award from the Dr Martin Luther King Jr State Celebration Commission of Missouri.
She was honored as the Lifetime Achiever in Health Care by the St Louis American Foundation at their 12th annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards in 2012.
Additionally, she has been the recipient of six honorary doctorate degrees from the following Universities:
Loyola University-Chicago (1995)
College of New Rochelle of New York (2008)
Aquinas Institute (2009)
St Louis University (2010)
University of Missouri St Louis (2010)
University of Notre Dame
She has continued to speak out for voting rights of not only African Americans, but all Americans
There is a concerted effort to suppress the votes of the poor and blacks. The effort was made during the last election to make sure we didn’t have people standing all the way around the block, just to get the right to vote, but it is still happening in individual states.
She has also been vocal about present-day racism and injustice that is seen in substandard educational opportunities for minorities and recent shootings of unarmed black youth. A friend drove Sister Ebo through Ferguson shortly after the shooting death of Michael Brown, and when he stopped to talk to some law enforcement officials that he knew, word soon spread as to who he was escorting around. The head of security in Ferguson, Capt. Ron Johnson of Missouri Highway Patrol visited Sister Ebo first, and several soon followed suit. A small video crew from Birmingham Alabama had walked past the car, not realizing that the living legend was inside. Capt Johnson stopped them and told them they were going the wrong way– they should be talking to that beautiful black nun. Sister Ebo told the crew to not be satisfied by taking some superficial pictures. “You are going to raise the rug and look at what’s under the rug. The mistake I think many of is made in the 60s is we were taking somebody else’s word for it; you have to look under the rug.”
She was present at a Faith in Ferguson prayer service in March of 2015, where she urged people on both sides of the conflict to meet for dialogue. She noted that dialogue between races and cultures creates understanding and builds bridges. She challenged the congregation: “You want to really, actually learn about peace? Well, get busy doing something for justice…Each of us is called to so something for our neighbors to express our love.” In the words of Pope Paul VI: “If you really want peace, work for justice”
Sister Ebo told the group in Ferguson that “every 20 years or so, we go through a new discontent.” She recognizes that there are many human rights issues to deal with today, and encourages people to ask themselves, “What do I need to be responding to?”
Sister Ebo has done her fair share of responding. Though not a native to St Louis, we will claim her as our very own beautiful black nun. Our very own civil rights hero. And our very own responder.
Frankie Muse Freeman will be celebrating her 100th birthday this November. She could be sitting at home, resting on the laurels of her innumerable accomplishments. But that’s not how she rolls. Instead, she is speaking out about the progress we have made as a nation in the area of civil rights, and what we can continue to do moving forward.
I read her book, A Song of Faith and Hope. I saw her speak at a local library event. And I was honored to speak with her over the phone. Here are just a few lessons I have learned from Mrs. Freeman.
1. Just do it.
Growing up, Frankie always heard people say they were “fixin'” to do this or that. Her parents didn’t love that. Instead, they encouraged Frankie and her siblings to get on with it– don’t “fix” to do it, just do it! (I think Yoda would have approved)
Frankie carried this simple yet powerful message with her throughout her life. I can’t help but think that many of her accomplishments are largely due to this mantra– this drive to just keep DOing.
At the last event at which she spoke (pictured above), Mrs Freeman was introduced as being the first African American woman to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. When it was her turn to speak, she corrected the mistress of ceremonies: “I was not the first African American woman to serve on the Commission. I was the first woman period. Black, white, yellow, blue, or otherwise,” to which she received thunderous applause.
The list of Mrs. Freeman’s accomplishments is staggering. Not only was she a rock star of a civil rights attorney, winning a landmark victory that ended racial segregation in public housing in St Louis, she went on to serve on the very housing commission she had just defeated in court, to help them implement the changes she demanded. As mentioned above, she was the first woman to serve on the Civil Rights Commission, and went on to become Inspector General for the Community Services Administration (these are positions appointed by the President of the United frickin States, y’all). The number of hats she has worn is staggering– from being the national president of her sorority to serving on just about every board known to man, including (but nowhere limited to): the League of Women Voters, the National Council on Aging, the YWCA, the Girl Scout Council of St Louis, the St Louis Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, the World Affairs Council of St Louis, oh, and the African American Jewish Task Force (no, she’s not Jewish, she just thinks its cool to reach out across cultural and religious boundaries). Now, with a resume like this, you might be thinking, “Oh, she’s had a great life.” You might even call it ‘charmed.’ You would be wrong.
Loss has not been a stranger to Mrs. Freeman. She has buried her mother, her father, and her husband. But she has also buried her son– a grief no human should have to endure. And she has battled cancer–twice– and won.
She has also fought one hell of a battle professionally. In her book she recalls one particular instance in Alabama, where she and the Civil Rights Commission were conducting hearings focusing on economic rights in Montgomery. In her words:
One evening, after the Montgomery hearings, I returned to my motel room after dinner. It was a pretty evening in April and I had the curtains open; I could look out– and anyone who wanted to could look in. I was sitting at a table with a member of the Alabama State Advisory Committee, reviewing the day, when boom, something struck the window and broke it. I thought it was a bullet. It apparently was intended for me, but I was not hit.
She was also fired, at least twice, for speaking up and being a “trouble maker.” But you think a little death, cancer, and possibly a bullet is going to stop Frankie?! She could have given up and not one person would have blamed her or said she hadn’t done enough. But nope. She just. Kept. Moving. As she says in her book, you have to keep your hand on the plow.
Even today, Frankie is a do-er. At the aforementioned speaking event, she was joined by youth activist and motivational speaker Koran Bolden. When asked about entities working to keep people divided, Koran spoke powerfully about how and why today’s youth needs our support. Frankie was so moved she jumped in and said, “What you just said touched everybody here, so there is no reason they can’t start tonight.” She went on to encourage everyone in the room to support Mr Bolden’s mission, saying, “Don’t wait until tomorrow for something that can start tonight. It is an individual’s responsibility to bring about change. Let’s begin it and let’s get on with it.” I have a feeling that Mrs Freeman has rarely waited for tomorrow.
Is there anything more beautiful than a woman who doesn’t say she’s “going to” do this or that, but actually goes out there and does it?
2. You are powerful.
Mrs. Freeman grew up in Danville, Virginia, the last capital of the Confederacy. She and her family lived on the 200 block of Ross Street, where all of her neighbors were black. The 100 block of Ross Street was a white neighborhood, and young Frankie and her siblings would walk through that neighborhood on their way into town. Mrs Freeman remembers that white children playing outside would often smile and say “nigger, nigger, nigger” and she and her siblings would smile back and say “cracker, cracker, cracker.” When the Freemans needed their shoes repaired, they would take them to a shop in the basement of Mr Wrigley, a white man. When the shoes were ready, Mr Wrigley’s children would return them to the Freeman family. These were normal occurrences.
Peaceful though it was, little Frankie grew up knowing that people who looked like her were treated differently, and that was not ok. She also grew up knowing that she had the power to change it. Her parents taught her that if you stand for something, there will be times when you have to say, “Enough”– but that doesn’t always mean you make a scene right then and there. She was always encouraged to do something that would be effective. Public transportation was segregated in Danville, so the Freeman family simply walked everywhere they went. If a friend of the family was mistreated in the local department store, the Freeman’s would no longer shop there. Frankie’s parents, Maude and William, were very active in Danville so Frankie grew up seeing her parents making a positive impact their community, and she knew she could too.
3. Make your own path
When the black community in Danville could not get a loan from the white owned banks, Frankie’s relatives started their own bank.
After graduating from law school, Frankie applied to law firms in St Louis. She was told they could use her in the office, perhaps to do research, but they would not hire her to try cases. Following her relatives’ lead, she started her own practice. She met with judges in St Louis and tried the cases no one wanted. The first few times she showed up to the courthouse and told the clerk which case she was there for, she was told to have a seat and her lawyer would be there shortly. But it wouldn’t be long before they learned who Frankie Freeman was. (By the way, Mrs Freeman practiced law until 2009. That’s 62 years!)
4. You do not acquiesce.
Throughout her book, this mantra “Later for you” pops up again and again. I loved seeing it every time because I knew it was a promise, and I knew whatever the situation was, Frankie was going to make it right. Like at a restaurant in Flat River, Missouri. Or a coffee shop in Louisville. Here is how she explains it:
Sometimes when you beat your head against a brick wall, you have to realize that you are damaging your head, not hurting the wall. Therefore, you do the best you can so long as you do not acquiesce and you do not give up. You say, “later for you,” and promise yourself that when you can do something about it, you will.
There were times when Mrs Freeman chose to give in to the law of the time, in lieu of being arrested. She knew she could do more in the courtroom than she could in the jailhouse, so she promised, “later for you” then got to work changing the world. (More on that below).
When I spoke to Mrs Freeman, I asked her what she sees today that makes her think, “Later for you” — what do we still need to work on? Living in St Louis, I was expecting a comment on the police violence that we have been hearing so much about. But she surprised me when she said that every state in America still has segregated schools. “Not by law, of course, but it is true.” She told me that there is still racial segregation, or isolation, in public schools today. And I don’t have to look farther than my own childrens’ school to see that she is right. We live in a suburb of St Louis, and the majority of the students are white. In fact, the few African American students we do have are those who are bussed in from the city. Frankie laments that diversity is not yet as valued as it should be. She is saddened to think that children don’t have the chance to really play and interact with kids who look different from them until they are adults. She encourages working with teachers and parents alike to figure out a solution. She told me that she called for more diversity and spoke about the value of it in 1969, and can say the exact same thing now. As she said in her book, “To move away from racism, I feel we need to get to know one another.” And getting to know each other should start happening at a young age.
5. Speak. Up.
Frankie didn’t always say “Later for you” to herself. As a matter of fact, she spoke right up when she found herself in a situation she knew was unfair, unethical, and unconstitutional. For instance, in February of 1961, Frankie was making her way via bus to Hayti, Missouri to be the keynote speaker at an event held by her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. On the way, the bus stopped at a restaurant in Flat Creek. She got off the bus with the other passengers and made her way to the restrooms. A waitress loudly informed her that “The colored use another entrance.” When Frakie proceeded towards the ladies room anyway, a white customer blocked her path and repeated what the waitress had just said, “Colored can’t come in here. You have to go to the other side.” Frankie froze. The bus driver got involved and defended the restaurant’s policy. Frankie thought about pushing the lady out of the way– but what would that solve? Frankie would have been arrested and her sisters in Hayti would have no speaker for their event. Instead, Frankie headed back to the bus and re-wrote her speech. (This might sound like Frankie gave up, but stay with me).
At the next stop, Frankie called home and asked her husband to contact a friend of theirs, attorney Charles Oldham. She wanted to file a complaint against Greyhound and against the restaurant, and file a complaint she did. Greyhound soon issued an apology and the restaurant agreed to change its policy. Two weeks later, when some folks visited the restaurant to make sure they had carried out their promise, they found that the separate facility for “colored” had been eliminated.
She had a similar incident at a coffee shop in an airport in Louisville. She was denied service, she spoke up, and changes were made. Mrs Freeman was confident enough to stand up because she knew she had the Constitution on her side.
6. Stay humble.
In her book, Frankie tells the story of when she was nominated as president of her Sorority. Now, let me point out that Frankie did not join while she was in college. She had known about Delta Sigma Theta when she was an undergrad at Hampton Institute, but they did not have sororities on campus then. And while studying law at Howard, she had no time to join. So it wasn’t until after she had received her law degree and was living in St Louis that Frankie became involved in the nationally known public service sorority. She worked hard for the sorority, and in 1967 she was on the ballot for national president. Now, the results of the election were to be announced at a banquet on the third day of a national convention. But word got out that Frankie had won, and she was receiving congratulatory phone calls while she was trying to get ready for the banquet. Consequently, she was late. In her own words:
I was late, honestly late; I am never late, but I truly was that time. However, some people thought I was coming in late on purpose–that I knew I was elected and was trying to make an appearance. Jeanne Nobel teased me later that I had “flaunted in,” but I replied that “I don’t flaunt.”
When you have lived the life Frankie Freeman has lived, you don’t have to flaunt.
While I was talking to Mrs Freeman on the phone I confessed that I had been holding onto her phone number for a couple of weeks, but I hadn’t had the courage to call her. I told her I was a bit intimidated because she is such a big deal. She just laughed and said, “Oh, I am not a big deal. I am a 99 year old woman!”
Well, that didn’t convince me. Frankie is most certainly a big deal, and she has every reason to flaunt. But she stays humble, and that is beautiful.
With President Bill Clinton
With President George H W Bush
With President Jimmy Carter
With First Lady Nancy Reagan
With First Lady Barbara Bush
With First Lady Ladybird Johnson
(See, I told you she was a big deal)
7. Do your homework.
Frankie’s mother was a public school teacher, and though she gave up her career to stay home with her children, she never stopped teaching. The Muses were strong believers in the power of education, and told her children that once they got an education, no one could take it away from them. Maude knew her children would go to college, the only question was where. She and William paid for their own children’s education, but Maude went even further and raised scholarship funds so other children could pursue their education as well.
Frankie remembers that her parents– her mother especially–filled their home with books. When I spoke with her, Frankie recalled: “There were books all over the place– and we had to read them all!” But she didn’t mind. She loved reading anything she could get her hands on.
When I asked her what the best piece of advice she had received was, she paused for a long moment and really thought about it. She finally answered, “My teacher told me to do my homework. That was the best advice.” And I can see that throughout her life, Frankie did just that. She worked hard, both in school and in the courtroom, and brought about real change in her community and her nation. That’s pretty damn beautiful if you ask me.
8. Take care of yourself.
Looking at Frankie’s life, it is easy to get the impression that she was all-business. How else could she have accomplished everything that she did? That is why I love this story of her just throwing caution to the wind and doing something unexpected: After being fired (the first time), Frankie went out and treated herself to something she had always wanted– a full length mink coat (don’t tell PETA). She put it on her husband’s credit card, but told him not to worry, she would pay it off as soon as she got back to work. Which, was like, the next day.
When I talked to her on the phone, I brought up some things she had mentioned in her book that had brought her joy. One of these things was cooking. I could hear her smile through the phone when she explained that, especially in the beginning, she was working so hard to get her career going, that she had to take time to relax, and cooking helped her do that. She told me her favorite thing to cook is her famous corn pudding, or her veggie salad with marinated green peppers, celery, tomatoes, and whatever other vegetables she can find. (My mouth is watering).
There is no arguing that Mrs Freeman worked hard throughout her life, but she knew how to treat herself as well. And that is beautiful.
At the end of my conversation with Mrs Freeman, I asked her what her definition of beauty is:
I was honored and inspired to have to opportunity to not only see this beautiful woman in person, but speak with her personally. She is truly an inspiration, and an example of what one individual can accomplish if they would just get to it.
Unless otherwise noted, all information and images were taken from Mrs Freeman’s book, her speaking engagement at the St Louis County Library Headquarters, or from my personal interview with her.
They sat. A nation stood. Celebrating Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin
“Mother Superior of the Civil Rights movement”
Today we celebrate Rosa Parks Day. And for good reason. It was Rosa who drew nation wide attention to Montgomery Alabama, where transportation segregation was rampant. And legal. What I didn’t realize– and you may not have known either– is that Rosa was sitting in “her” section of the bus. So, she was actually following the law. But when all the seats filled up and a white man was left standing, the bus driver demanded that Rosa give up her seat for him. She refused. And the rest is HERtory.
It is a very special thing to learn what happened from the woman herself, in her own words. Take it away Tom Brokaw…
(I grabbed this video from YouTube, but it is also available on NBC Learn. It originally aired in 1995)
But before Rosa, there was Claudette…
Civil Rights activist, Medical professional (1939-)
I first heard Claudette’s story on an episode of Drunk History. I was in awe. Here was this fierce little 15 year old girl, who refused to give up her seat on the bus NINE MONTHS BEFORE Rosa Parks did it. According to the episode (and this article by NPR), Rosa Parks was a sectary for the NAACP who had a natural gravitas. Parks was an adult, with the right look and the right hair. She would be the face of the boycott. Colvin was young, had darker skin, and got pregnant soon after her arrest– not the poster child the NAACP was looking for.
Recalling that day, Claudette says she remembers it was Negro history month at her (segregated) school. Her head was swimming with the stories of leaders like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Her class had talked about the injustices they faced every day under the Jim Crow laws. Injustices like not being able to eat at a lunch counter, or try on clothes. She remembers, “We couldn’t try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot…and take it to the store.” With all of these images fresh in her mind, she had finally had enough. That day she would not be moved. She would not get off that bus– she says she felt like she had Sojourner Truth on one side of her and Harriet Tubman on the other, holding her down in that seat.
When Claudette refused to give up her seat, the bus driver notified police. I will let Claudette tell the rest of the story herself:
CLAUDETTE: One of them (the police officers) said to the driver in a very angry tone, “Who is it?” The motorman pointed at me. I heard him say, “That’s nothing new . . . I’ve had trouble with that ‘thing’ before.” He called me a “thing.” They came to me and stood over me and one said, “Aren’t you going to get up?” I said, “No, sir.” He shouted “Get up” again. I started crying, but I felt even more defiant. I kept saying over and over, in my high-pitched voice, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!” I knew I was talking back to a white policeman, but I had had enough.
One cop grabbed one of my hands and his partner grabbed the other and they pulled me straight up out of my seat. My books went flying everywhere. I went limp as a baby—I was too smart to fight back. They started dragging me backwards off the bus. One of them kicked me. I might have scratched one of them because I had long nails, but I sure didn’t fight back. I kept screaming over and over, “It’s my constitutional right!” I wasn’t shouting anything profane—I never swore, not then, not ever. I was shouting out my rights.
It just killed me to leave the bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat when so many black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door. They stood outside and talked to each other for a minute, and then one came back and told me to stick my hands out the open window. He handcuffed me and then pulled the door open and jumped in the backseat with me. I put my knees together and crossed my hands over my lap and started praying.
All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me “nigger bitch” and cracked jokes about parts of my body. I recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm over and over in my head, trying to push back the fear. I assumed they were taking me to juvenile court because I was only fifteen. I was thinking, ‘Now I’m gonna be picking cotton, since that’s how they punished juveniles’—they put you in a school out in the country where they made you do field work during the day.
But we were going in the wrong direction. They kept telling me I was going to Atmore, the women’s penitentiary. Instead, we pulled up to the police station and they led me inside. More cops looked up when we came in and started calling me “Thing” and “Whore.” They booked me and took my fingerprints.
Then they put me back in the car and drove me to the city jail—the adult jail. Someone led me straight to a cell without giving me any chance to make a phone call. He opened the door and told me to get inside. He shut it hard behind me and turned the key. The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard. It sounded final. It said I was trapped.
When he went away, I looked around me: three bare walls, a toilet, and a cot. Then I feel down on my knees in the middle of the cell and started crying again. I didn’t know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there. I cried and I put my hands together and prayed like I had never prayed before.
• • •
MEANWHILE, schoolmates who had been on the bus had run home and telephoned Claudette’s mother at the house where she worked as a maid. Girls went over and took care of the lady’s three small children so that Claudette’s mother could leave. Mary Ann Colvin called Claudette’s pastor, the Reverend H.H. Johnson. He had a car, and together they sped to the police station.
• • •
CLAUDETTE: When they led Mom back, there I was in a cell. I was cryin’ hard, and then Mom got upset, too. When she saw me, she didn’t bawl me out, she just asked, “Are you all right, Claudette?”
Reverend Johnson bailed me out and we drove home. By the time we got to King Hill, word had spread everywhere. All our neighbors came around, and they were just squeezing me to death. I felt happy and proud. I had been talking about getting our rights ever since Jeremiah Reeves was arrested, and now they knew I was serious. Velma, Q.P. and Mary Ann’s daughter, who was living with us at the time, kept saying it was my squeaky little voice that had saved me from getting beat up or raped by the cops.
But I was afraid that night, too. I had stood up to a white bus driver and two white cops. I had challenged the bus law. There had been lynchings and cross burnings for that kind of thing. Wetumpka Highway that led out of Montgomery ran right past our house. It would have been easy for the Klan to come up the hill in the night. Dad sat up all night long with his shotgun. We all stayed up. The neighbors facing the highway kept watch. Probably nobody on King Hill slept that night.
But worried or not, I felt proud. I had stood up for our rights. I had done something a lot of adults hadn’t done. On the ride home from jail, coming over the viaduct, Reverend Johnson had said something to me I’ll never forget. He was an adult who everyone respected and his opinion meant a lot to me. “Claudette,” he said, “I’m so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We’ve all been praying and praying. But you’re different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.”
Excerpt from Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose (via NPR)
Both of these ladies deserve to be honored today. As do the hundreds of civil rights advocates that made the Montgomery bus boycott a success. And the thousands of African Americans that demanded to be heard by peacefully boycotting. If they had given in and taken the bus, we might still be years behind.
These ladies, and so many others like them, were on the right side of history.
All of these women, and many more, contributed to the civil rights movement we are so familiar with today. Though the image we see is usually of men in suits giving important speeches, lets not forget about the strong, passionate, brave women who were also on the front lines in the fight for civil liberties.