ACD Justice Journal: Stories & Ideas for Liberation

5 Black St. Louisans Who Shook Up History 

These troublemakers revolutionized civil rights, housing, and labor activism

By Angelo Vidal

February 23, 2024

Not all those who progressed civil rights and racial justice in St. Louis are household names, and many Black activists are left out of the larger historical narrative. Though their stories are often overlooked, these leaders were instrumental in shaping the city we live in today and helped push a radical progressive agenda on the national level. Their stories inspire ArchCity Defenders’ mission to achieve justice for communities of color and our belief in the power of collective action and community.

Frankie Muse Freeman (1916–2018)

HBCU-educated lawyer and civil rights stalwart Frankie Muse Freeman moved to St. Louis in 1948 in search of work, which was especially difficult to find for Black women in the legal profession. In her memoir, A Song of Faith and Hope, Freeman recalls, “the law was absolutely a male-dominated profession… Since I am female and black, people will sometimes ask: ‘Freeman, have you been discriminated against more because of your race or your sex?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, but I have scar tissue from both.’” 
After a brief stint taking whatever criminal defense cases she could, Freeman found her way into civil rights law where she made her mark in housing and education. She was part of the NAACP legal team that filed a desegregation suit against the St. Louis Board of Education in 1949. Most notably, Freeman was the lead attorney for the landmark case Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority, which ended legal racial discrimination in public housing in the city. On the national scene, she was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to be the first woman member – and only Black member at the time – of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1964.  

Ora Lee Malone (1918–2012)

Ora Lee Malone entered the arena of labor activism while employed as a pieceworker at a men’s jacket manufacturer in St. Louis. The factory hired mostly Black women who were mistreated and often fired for unfair reasons. Malone organized her coworkers to join the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (AWCA) in 1956, and she was elected the shop steward of the first predominantly black union shop in St. Louis. She went on to serve 19 years as the union’s international representative for the St. Louis District and was the first Black person to hold the position. 

In the 1970s, Malone helped establish the St. Louis chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), which focused on building a bond between the labor movement and civil rights movement, and she co-founded the national Coalition of Labor Union Women among other organizations and events. Today, Malone is credited with being one of the first to connect struggles for racial and gender equality with working-class economic justice movements. She urged women laborers to lead the way in transforming the political and economic order, even though they occupied some of the most precarious sectors of the working class. She was firm in her belief that unionization was key to the liberation of women of color. 

Jean King

In 1969, Jean King led over one thousand public housing tenants, about 25% of the St. Louis City’s project residents, through one of America’s first and largest postwar rent strikes. The strike was ignited by the St. Louis Housing Authority’s choice to increase rent by six times, which threatened to unhouse countless poor families on fixed incomes. After withholding rent for almost a year, King and the tenants emerged victorious, securing an agreement that mandated tenants’ active involvement in management and capped rent at a maximum of 25% of tenants’ income.  

In the fall of 1969, as the strike ended, the National Tenants Organization (NTO) selected St. Louis as the location for its inaugural conference and Jean King as the organization’s vice-president. She went on to work with U.S. Senator Edward Brooke and shape components of the 1969 “Brooke Amendment, which integrated rent caps in public housing into the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The triumph of the rent strike showcased St. Louis as a hub of women’s leadership driving the national progressive agenda, and inspired similar actions in New York, New Orleans, and Chicago. 

Percy Green II (1935–Present)

Percy Green II, a Compton Hill native and Vashon High School alum, was arrested over 100 times in a 20-year period for his unconventional and bold activism. As a key member in the St. Louis chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he championed nonviolent resistance to segregation. Additionally, Green was a founding member of ACTION (Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes), which became widely known for its flamboyant, nonviolent guerilla protests against racist institutions. 

One of Green’s most iconic actions occurred on July 14, 1964, when he scaled the partially constructed Gateway Arch to protest the exclusion of blacks from federal contracts and jobs related to the construction of the Arch. Today, a photo of Percy Green adorns the monuments walls. Green was also involved in famous protests against the Veiled Prophet Ball, a dance held every December since 1878 where its members wore white robes and pointy hats resembling the KKK. A popular affair for St. Louis’ white elite, the Ball denied entry to Jews and Blacks. ACTION infiltrated the event year after year, sparking group to diversify its members and let Blacks in, but Green maintains that the organizations should abolished on account of its racist roots. Percy Green II’s legacy continues to inspire generations to confront injustice and demand change. 

George L. Vaughn (1880–1949) 

George L. Vaughn, a prominent Black St. Louis attorney and the son of former slaves, was a towering figure in the St. Louis’ political arena. He helped forge the Citizens Liberty League to promote and endorse Black political candidates, which resulted in the first Black candidate elected to public office in Missouri.  

Vaughn’s crowning achievement, however, lays in his pivotal role as legal counsel in landmark Supreme Court case focused on restrict covenants, Shelley v. Kraemer (1948). Restrictive covenants aimed at preventing the sale of property to African Americans. Vaughn argued that the courts’ enforcement of these covenants violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court’s ruling on May 3, 1948 struck down the enforcement of such restrictive covenants in nineteen states and the District of Columbia. Following this monumental decision, Thurgood Marshall, a distinguished NAACP attorney who would later ascend to the Supreme Court noted the case’s profound impact: “[Shelley] gave thousands of prospective buyers throughout the United States new courage and hope in the American form of government.”