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Thompson Coburn honors Civil Rights pioneer Frankie Muse Freeman

January 18, 2018

Thompson Coburn joins the national legal community in mourning the loss of St. Louis Civil Rights pioneer Frankie Muse Freeman, who died on January 12 at the age of 101. 

Ms. Freeman was a respected and beloved legal figure in the St. Louis community. She not only forged her way as one of the first women attorneys of color to practice law, but also led work on landmark Civil Rights cases.

"As attorneys and citizens, we were blessed to have a legal legend like Frankie Muse Freeman living and working in our midst,” said Thompson Coburn Chairman Tom Minogue. “From her we learned the power of perseverance, the fundamental importance of equal protection under the law, and the great impact that a single dedicated attorney can make in the lives of so many."

Ms. Freeman was part of the legal team that led the landmark civil rights case Brewton v. Board of Education in St. Louis. The case predated Brown vs. Board of Education and challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine. She also led the NAACP team that successfully ended segregation in public housing in St. Louis. For that case, she conducted discovery, wrote the briefs and argued the case before a federal judge.

Ms. Freeman was the first woman named to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She served on the commission for 16 years — through four presidential administrations — and traveled the country during the 1960s hearing shocking firsthand accounts of racial discrimination. For many years, she was the only woman on the Commission and the only African American.

When her service with the Commission ended, Ms. Freeman returned to St. Louis and played an integral role in the city’s decades-long school desegregation effort. Well into her 90s, she regularly traveled to Washington, D.C., with her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters to talk to Congress about voting rights issues and equal pay for women.

“Frankie Muse Freeman was the kind of lawyer you read about in history books — but she lived right here in our community and was incredibly giving of her life experiences and inspiration,” said Thompson Coburn partner Bill Bay, who worked with Ms. Freeman on bar programs focused on racial and ethnic fairness and honored her in 2014 when she received the Spirit of Excellence Award from the ABA’s Commission on Racial & Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.

“She reminds us why we went to law school, the difference lawyers can make, and the important heritage we share when it comes to the still-ongoing fight for civil rights. Ms. Freeman’s constant reply to the many people who sought her advice rings true today: ‘Don’t just watch others do it – get involved!’ ‘Serve, in any way you can, every day.’”

Memorial arrangements: Ms. Freeman’s body will lie in repose from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, January 19, in the Grand Hall of the Missouri History Museum. The public is invited to the viewing. Her funeral will be at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, January 21, at Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, 3200 Washington Avenue, where Ms. Freeman was a member. Services are open to the public.