More Than Meets the Eye: Civil Rights Activism in St. Louis

6, August 2014

This post is the second in a series about the Teens Make History Avenues of Activism Oral History Project. Be sure to check out the Avenues of Activism playlist to watch more stories of activism in St. Louis.

civil rights protest for equality in St. Louis, 1964Members of CORE picket to demand jobs for African Americans on the Gateway Arch construction project, July 23, 1964. When their demands were not met, activists Percy Green II and Richard Daly climbed the construction scaffolding of the Arch in protest—150 feet up in the air. Photograph by Lloyd Spainhower, 1964. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Collection.

When you think of the civil rights movement in America, what sorts of images come to mind? Sit-ins, marches, and protests? Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Rosa Parks sitting calmly on the bus?

Because of iconic images like these, the national civil rights movement is a particularly well-known area of activism. Many people view the movement as past protests that ended in victories like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet, in interviewing five civil rights activists who initiated great changes in St. Louis—Billie Teneau, Frankie Freeman, Hedy Epstein, Percy Green II, and Jamala Rogers—we’ve found the story of civil rights to be more complex. Though often seen as a distinct movement of the past, the civil rights movement evolved over time and, in many ways, the struggle continues today.

Civil rights activism has early roots in St. Louis, beginning with the formation of the St. Louis chapter of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) in 1947. In her oral history, Billie Teneau, a founding member of the local CORE chapter, discussed some of the organization’s earliest tactics, such as holding interracial picnics in Forest Park to show both whites and African Americans “having fun together and enjoying each other’s company.” Peaceful demonstrations were essential to CORE’s work both here in St. Louis and across the nation.

At the same time that CORE was fighting discrimination through nonviolent protest, other civil rights activists helped build momentum for the movement through the courts. Here in St. Louis, equal education and fair housing were important issues that were fought through lawsuits. For instance, working with the NAACP, civil rights lawyer Frankie Muse Freeman fought against discrimination in 1949 with the case Brewton v. the Board of Education of St. Louis—five years before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case. At the time, Freeman was one of the few African American women lawyers. She later became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The Freedom of Residence Committee was another major St. Louis organization working against discrimination through the courts. Hedy Epstein worked as a volunteer, board member, and later a staff member for Freedom of Residence. An interracial couple was denied the right to buy a house in North County, and with the help of Freedom of Residence the couple sued the real estate company. This case led to the mandate that all housing had to be made available for purchase by African Americans.

The struggle for civil rights evolved after these early successes. Many activists fought for quicker change and advocated more direct action protests. Percy Green II was one such activist advocating direct action. Although originally part of CORE, he branched off to found the organization ACTION. Green recalled, “We felt that a more effective strategy would be to disrupt in a nonviolent manner, just as the Jefferson Bank demonstration occurred early on and to bring about change within the community.” Disruption is key to direct action; protests need to hinder daily routine and draw attention to the protestors in order to be effective.

Jamala Rogers, a columnist for the St. Louis American, is also a proponent of direct action, calling it “a necessary evil.” In her interview, she described direct action protests that occur today, like paying in pennies at fast food restaurants.

Through our interviews, we found that the struggle for civil rights continues today. While the activists we interviewed reflected on their past achievements, they also believe that St. Louis still faces many problems—from racism to education to job opportunities. Jamala Rogers even questioned what changes have been made since the 1960s. “But, you know, I’m trying to think of some positive change, and that’s really a challenge. That’s really a challenge,” she told us.  “Because as I said, you know, you went through the cycle of getting those rights, and then [in] the next generation a lot of those rights and privileges and gains were eroded or squashed.”

While the civil rights movement is important in both our nation’s history and our city’s history, we should also recognize that this movement is an ongoing battle. There are still many activists today who continue the fight against discrimination. There is still much more work to be done.

—Teens Make History Exhibitors