ST. PETERSBURG — One of the last two living members of the "Courageous 12," a group of black police officers who successfully sued the city more than 50 years ago for the right to patrol white neighborhoods, died Friday. He was 81.
The news of Freddie Lee Crawford's passing came Saturday afternoon in a Twitter post by the Police Department. "He will be remembered for leading the way for African-Americans & minorities to serve the community in every rank of law enforcement," it said.
Police Chief Anthony Holloway, who is black, praised the efforts by Crawford and the other officers in a phone interview.
"Those 12 men stood up for something that actually meant something," he said. "I have benefited from it, and so have other minorities in leadership positions across the nation."
Department spokeswoman Sandra Bentil said she had no information about Crawford’s death, other than that he was surrounded by family at the time.
Crawford and the others filed their federal lawsuit in 1965, putting themselves at risk of losing their jobs, to claim the Police Department discriminated against its black officers. It was one of the first lawsuits of its kind across the nation after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
At the time, the officers could only patrol black neighborhoods and were not allowed to arrest white people or hold leadership positions. They also were forced to use different locker rooms and cars than white officers. Their suit sought to change those conditions.
It took three years, but the group eventually won its case — a court decision that leveled the playing field for African-Americans working in law enforcement throughout the United States. It was a "landmark ruling," said Goliath Davis, who became St. Petersburg's first black police chief in 1997.
Having grown up in the city, Davis remembers the 12 patrolling his neighborhood when he was young. They policed the black community with compassion, he said, while at the same time fighting against injustice within the department.
Crawford was the "leader of the pack," said Leon Jackson, who at 78 is the last living member of the Courageous 12. Jackson started at the department in 1963 as Crawford's patrolling partner on the midnight shift.
"The first night I worked with Freddie, I got in that cruiser and he said 'I'm going to make a police officer out of you,'" Jackson remembered. "And that he did."
Crawford was the first to suggest the lawsuit against the city, Jackson said. He was bold that way. Officers around the department always knew it was him pulling down the "Whites Only" sign above the water fountain.
The chief at the time wouldn't listen to the group's concerns, even after two meetings. So Crawford pushed them to sue.
"We told Freddie he was putting us on the spot," Jackson said. "He said he didn't care."
The fight wasn't easy. The officers didn't make enough money to pay court costs, so they took out a bank loan. A judge dismissed the case in 1966, and the group's attorney, James B. Sanderlin, had to appeal. That's when the NAACP stepped in to help.
None of the 12 got fired, Jackson said. But they did get push-back at work.
"The Police Department didn't want to change," Jackson said. "They didn't want us to expose the racism that was going on."
Victory for the officers finally came Aug. 1, 1968.
"Nothing … is intended to suggest that the Negro officers on the police force of St. Petersburg should be given preferential treatment," the court ruling read. "They deserve only what they seek — equality."
Jackson was the first black officer to be assigned to a white neighborhood after the ruling, he said. A couple of the others got desk jobs that had only ever been held by white people. Slowly, the department was becoming integrated.
A few years later, Crawford showed up at Davis' house to say he should join the department. He did, and because of the ruling the 12 fought for Davis was able to earn a series of promotions before becoming chief.
"Those 12 guys started a movement that reverberated throughout Tampa Bay, the state of Florida and the rest of the nation," Davis said. "Both black and white, we've benefited greatly for their sacrifice. We're standing on the shoulders of those guys."
A funeral service for Crawford has been scheduled for June 1 at the Lawson Funeral Home at 4535 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mareevs.
FREDDIE LEE CRAWFORD
Born: Aug. 17, 1937
Died: May 17, 2019
Survivors: Daughters Joan Crawford-Lewis (Roger Lewis), Peggy Crawford, Tracy Star Crawford and Kimberly Crawford. Sons Frederick Crawford, Terel Crawford, Norman Crawford, Quentin Harris and Kofi Adisa. Sisters Verdell Wyman and Shirley Tiggs. Brother Arthur Lee Crawford. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren.