Frankie Muse Freeman: Civil Rights Attorney

Frankie Muse Freeman being sworn in as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1964. Getty Images

In 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, attorney Frankie Muse Freeman was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by Lyndon B. Johnson. Freeman, who had built a reputation as a lawyer unafraid to fight racial discrimination, was the first woman to be appointed to the commission. The Commission was a federal organization dedicated to investigating complaints of racial discrimination. For 15 years, Freeman served as part of this federal-fact finding agency that helped to establish the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Fair Housing Act of 1968.


  • First African-American woman to win a major civil rights case in 1954.
  • The first woman to be appointed to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
  • Helped to develop the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights in 1982.
  • Inducted into the National Bar Association’s Hall of Fame in 1990.
  • Inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site
  • Appointed as a member of the Presidential Scholars by President Barack Obama.
  • Awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 2011.
  • Recipient of the Spirit of Excellence Award from the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession in 2014.
  • Published the memoir, A Song of Faith and Hope.
  • Recipient of honorary doctorate degrees from Hampton University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis University, Washington University in St. Louis and Howard University.

Early Life and Education

Frankie Muse Freeman was born on November 24, 1916, in Danville, Va. Her father,  William Brown was one of three postal clerks in Virginia. Her mother, Maude Beatrice Smith Muse, was a housewife dedicated to civic leadership in the African-American community. Freeman attended the Westmoreland School and played piano throughout her childhood. Despite living a comfortable life, Freeman was aware of the impact that Jim Crow laws had on African-Americans in the South. 

In 1932, Freeman began attending Hampton University (then Hampton Institute). In 1944, Freeman enrolled in Howard University Law School, graduating in 1947.

Frankie Muse Freeman: Attorney

1948: Freeman opens a private law practice after not being able to secure employment at several law firms. Muse handles divorces and criminal cases. She also takes so pro bono cases.

1950: Freeman begins her career as a civil rights attorney when she becomes legal counsel to the NAACP’s legal team in a lawsuit filed against the St. Louis Board of Education.

1954: Freeman serves as the lead attorney for the NAACP case Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority. The ruling abolished legal racial discrimination in public housing in St. Louis.

1956: Relocating to St. Louis, Freeman becomes a staff attorney for the St. Louis Land Clearance and Housing Authorities. She holds this position until 1970. During her 14 year tenure, Freeman served as an associate general counsel and then general counsel of the St. Louis Housing Authority.

1964: Lyndon Johnson nominates Freeman to serve as a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. In September of 1964, the Senate approves her nomination. Freeman will be the first African-American woman to serve on the civil rights commission. She holds this position until 1979 after being reappointed by presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.

1979: Freeman is appointed as Inspector General for the Community Services Administration by Jimmy Carter. However, when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, all Democratic inspector generals were asked to resign from their positions.

1980 to Present: Freeman returned to St. Louis and continued to practice law. For many years, she practiced with Montgomery Hollie & Associates, LLC.

1982: Worked with 15 former federal officials to establish the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights. The purpose of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights is to end racial discrimination in United States’ society.

Civic Leader

In addition to her work as an attorney, Freeman has served as a Trustee Emeritus of the Board of Trustees at Howard University; former Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Council on Aging, Inc. and the National Urban League of St. Louis; Board member of the United Way of Greater St. Louis; the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District; the St. Louis Center for International Relations.

Personal Life

Freeman married Shelby Freeman before attending Howard University. The couple had two children. 

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Lewis, Femi. "Frankie Muse Freeman: Civil Rights Attorney." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Femi. (2020, August 26). Frankie Muse Freeman: Civil Rights Attorney. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Frankie Muse Freeman: Civil Rights Attorney." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).