Dr. Thomas F. Freeman Receives Highest Honor From CBCF

ABOVE: CBCF Chair Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee presents Dr. Thomas F. Freeman with CBCF Chair’s Phoenix Award

“My future is limited. Yours unlimited. For in the days that lie ahead, the challenges that face us today, must be met by you. And may this assembly serve as a challenge to each of you to remember that really, they don’t have our best interest in mind. We must do it ourselves…..We must make America what it was intended to be in the first place. The land of the free and the home of the brave!”

These were the bold, closing words of iconic Texas Southern University (TSU) professor and world-renowned Debate Team head coach emeritus, Dr. Thomas F. Freeman, as he received a thunderous standing ovation after concluding his acceptance speech at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s (CBCF) annual Phoenix Awards Dinner this past Saturday, September 23rd in Washington D.C., where he received the highest honor the CBCF presents to an individual.

The Phoenix award is presented by the CBCF to individuals whose extraordinary achievements strengthen communities and improve the lives of individuals, families and communities, both nationally and globally, and Dr. Freeman’s long-standing commitment to improving the quality of life for African American students was the basis of the award.

The 98-year-old legendary educator and prolific scholar was bestowed with the CBCF Chair’s Phoenix Award, after being selected by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), who represents the historic 18th Congressional District of Texas and is currently serving as the Chairperson of the CBCF, to receive the honor.

“I could not think of another person who is worthy of such a distinct honor than Dr. Thomas F. Freeman,” said Congresswoman Jackson Lee. “His life’s work and the many lives he has touched and influenced, is exactly why he is being given the CBCF’s highest honor – the Phoenix Award. I am extremely proud to honor this living legend.”

        Dr. Thomas Freeman addresses the crowd. Photo credit: Roy Lewis

The Forward Times visited with Dr. Freeman after his memorable speech at the Phoenix Awards Dinner, to get his thoughts on what he has experienced throughout his 98 years in this world, and how he views the world at this stage of his life.

“I’m 98 years and still counting, but today I see the world as a mixed up world that has gone away from basic values and has become subject to inferior ideas and concepts,” said Dr. Freeman. “I see the world confused and without moral values, attempting to substitute for truth and verity. You don’t know which way to turn – one way or the other. And I suspect that the reason for this is the lack of moral moorings. Now everyone is talking about being politically correct. Political correctness does not necessarily mean goodness. It may mean mere expediency. So much of the activity is for the advancement of the person and not for the advancement of the group. I see a very confused world, and unless we go back to the moral moorings, we are going to have more confusion.”

When asked about the current political climate in America, particularly with the current Trump administration, Dr. Freeman did not mince words.

“It is an unfortunate day in our history to have the kind of representative that we have,” said Dr. Freeman. “We must work to make up for his deficiencies.”

Dr. Freeman believes the world is going back to a time where hate is attempting to overshadow love, and it must stop.

“We want peace, but you can’t have peace in hearts that hate,” said Dr. Freeman. “You can only have peace in hearts that love, and so we need to go back to the foundation of the love of mankind, and it will extend itself, not just to your own people, but to all people. That’s how I see the world at this moment in time.”

Dr. Freeman believes people must do more sacrificially, if they expect to see true change.

“In earlier times, there were sacrifices made,” said Dr. Freeman. “Martin Luther King gave his life. We need that type of moral push that will enable a person to recognize that one life is not nearly as important as other lives. And so just as Christ laid down His life for others, so there needs to be that kind of willingness to make the sacrifices that will bring about a change in our overall condition.”

As it relates to Colin Kaepernick and his stance, Dr. Freeman strongly supports him and refuses to criticize the efforts of someone who is sincerely committed to making a difference in society.

“Just like there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to bring about justice. Each in his own way,” said Dr. Freeman. “I don’t believe we accomplish much by criticizing somebody else, by saying things like ‘that ought not to be done’. You speak in your way and another person speaks in their way; all aimed at the same thing – the emancipation of mankind. I will not join those who say ‘this one is right’ and I will not join those who say ‘that one is right’. Both may be wrong. But, both are working honestly towards the achievement of their goal. One achieves it one way and another achieves it another way, but you must never lose sight of the goal. You’re aiming for the same thing.”

When asked whether African Americans should follow the blueprint left by those who were instrumental in bringing about change during the Civil Rights movement to deal with today’s issues, Dr. Freeman believes African Americans should learn from their past, but should embrace new and unique approaches to deal with today’s issues even more.

“I don’t think patterning your approach to dealing with today’s issues, after someone else’s approach is going to bring about the answers we seek,” said Dr. Freeman. “I think recognizing the unique features of the overall situation, and attempting to address those features in a unique way, is the approach that ought to be made.”

At the ripe age of 98, Dr. Freeman remains extremely active and still keeps a healthy commitment to making a difference in the lives of young people at the forefront of his daily life.

“I just pray God gives me the strength and health to continue to do what I’ve been doing all these years – having a constant pursuit of excellence, while trying to stimulate and motivate students to develop excellence. I will keep stressing the fact that perfection is impossible, but if you keep pursuing perfection, you may end up with excellence, and excellence will be the doorway through which you will go to higher level of achievement in the future.”

Dr. Freeman has indeed seen a lot throughout his years, having been born in 1919 in Richmond, Virginia, where he spent his childhood and attended college. After receiving countless degrees from universities all across the world, Dr. Freeman came to Houston, Texas and founded the TSU Debate Team in 1949. After 68 years, Dr. Freeman can still be found in his office at the University as Head Coach Emeritus, still helping multiple generations of students find their voice and rise to new heights of scholarly achievement.

As a pillar in the Houston community, Dr. Freeman also has served as the pastor of Mt. Horem Baptist Church for well over 67 years and still delivers sermons. He served in numerous capacities at TSU through the years and was the Founding Dean of TSU’s Honors College, which is named in his honor. Over the course of his teaching career, he taught and influenced many prominent African American leaders including Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Congressman Mickey Leland and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse University in 1947 while being honored as a visiting professor at the University. In more recent time, Dr. Freeman was consulted by Academy-award winning actor Denzel Washington for help in debating techniques in preparation for the 2007 movie, “The Great Debaters.”

The new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. features a display of Dr. Freeman and his award-winning, internationally acclaimed TSU Debate Team. The TSU Debate Team display carries a picture taken in the1950s of the team with Dr. Freeman. It includes a description of the team’s activities and a reference to the team’s role in the training of the actors in the movie, “The Great Debaters.” Also on display is the trophy won by TSU alumnae Barbara Jordan (deceased) and TSU alumnus and former TSU Thurgood Marshall School of Law professor Otis King (deceased) when they integrated forensics in the South, at Baylor University in 1957.

This year’s other distinguished Phoenix Award honorees joining Dr. Freeman included:

  • Civil Rights pioneer Ruby Bridges Hall, who received the CBC Chair Phoenix Award for her fearless leadership and willingness to confront segregation head on in the New Orleans school system
  • U.S. Ambassador and former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, who received the ALC Co-Chair’s Phoenix Award for his outstanding contributions to the enhancement of improved relations in foreign affairs and for his belief that trade is the strongest key to unlocking jobs and growth for the American economy and global prosperity
  • Ms. Tamika Mallory, who received the ALC Co-Chair’s Phoenix Award in recognition of her exemplary leadership and profound impact on social justice and civil rights advocacy
  • U.S. Congressman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Mississippi), who received the Harold Washington Phoenix Award in recognition of his immeasurable contributions to African American political awareness, empowerment and advancement of minorities in the electoral process

When asked what receiving the Phoenix Award meant to him, Dr. Freeman’s words were surprisingly few, yet profound, and indicative of the man Dr. Freeman truly is.

His words were simply that he is “humbly grateful.”

The Forward Times is also “humbly grateful” to be able to salute Dr. Thomas F. Freeman on his recognition as the 2017 CBCF Chair’s Phoenix Award recipient, and we are looking forward to seeing your continuous impact and positive influence on our young people as you keep going strong at 98 years and counting.