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James King, one of Courageous 12 of St. Petersburg police, dies at 75

ST. PETERSBURG — In 20 years on the police force, James King was struck, bloodied and threatened with weapons. Like other black officers, he worked the most dangerous beats without a chance for promotion or reassignment.

As civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi and demonstrators met with fire hoses in Alabama, Mr. King drove C-car 52 (for "colored"), and had to wait for white officers to haul downtown the people he had arrested.

Then Mr. King signed his name to a discrimination lawsuit against the city, demanding the same opportunities as white officers. In a landmark case, changes sought by the dozen plaintiffs, known as the "Courageous 12," became law.

Mr. King died at home Wednesday. He was 75.

He loved police work and urged his friends to apply, saying the city needed more black officers.

"I said, 'Look, man, I don't want to be no police officer,' " said retired police Officer Leon Jackson. "He finally talked me into it."

They called him "the recruiter."

Mr. King was brought up by his mother in an area the locals called "Pepper Town."

"It was one of the poorest areas, on Fourth Avenue S between Eighth and Ninth Streets," said childhood friend Adam Baker, another of Mr. King's recruits to the police force. "It bordered what we would call White America."

Mr. King played football at Gibbs High School, an offensive guard with quick feet. In the late 1950s, while working a job selling magazine subscriptions, he saw a movie at the Harlem Theater on Third Avenue S and became enchanted with a ticket seller named Catherine.

"He tried to sell me magazines because he wanted to talk to me, I think," said Catherine King.

They married in 1961, a year after he joined the police force.

Black officers covered three areas known collectively as "zone 13": from Dr. M.L. King and 12th streets between Second and Fifth avenues N; from Eighth to 16th streets between Second and Seventh avenues S; and an area south of Central Avenue west of 16th Street S, extending to 18th Avenue S.

The worst nights, officers walked the streets in a group of four.

"Twenty-second Street in the 1950s and 1960s became a battle zone," said Baker, 72. "We had shooting, stabbings, cuttings, major assault. It was a hell of a place, and most white police did not want to work out there."

Jackson, 69, agreed. "Every Friday night you looked to fight," he said. If anything, he said, the black officers' race increased hostility against them from other African-Americans.

"They didn't see white officers. They saw us," said Baker, who now lives outside Rochester, N.Y.

Whenever they apprehended a white suspect, they had to call for a white officer to take the person downtown — to avoid the sight of white people riding in a C-car.

The inequities went on for years. Requests for reassignment were denied.

All the same, Mr. King's colleagues remember him as an even-handed officer. "Jimmy was a level-headed guy," said Jackson, 69. "He didn't let things get him down."

Other officers enjoyed seeing Mr. King run down fleeing suspects, even as he got older and heavier. "You had some guys who were slow," said Baker. "Jimmy was not one of them."

In 1965, 12 of the department's 15 black police officers, including Baker and Jackson, filed a discrimination suit against the city, in what would become a national landmark case.

Tensions at the Police Department escalated. "If it was bad before, it got worse," Baker said.

"Every little thing, they were called to task for," said Catherine King.

A federal judge dismissed the case. But three years later, an appeals court overturned that verdict, signaling victory for the plaintiffs.

Within days after the successful appeal, two officers were granted reassignments they sought. Mr. King retired in 1980, a year after he won the Ned March Award for outstanding police work. He began a second career performing background checks of the city's police and firefighter applicants. He stayed in that job for 25 years. In 2007, the city awarded Courageous 12 officers or their survivors plaques and keys to the city.

He was active in the Masons and Bethel AME Church, and was known for a crab dish he cooked at charity events. Diabetes had slowed Mr. King in recent years, but he was planning to see his great-grandson compete in a spelling bee later this month.

On Wednesday morning, Catherine King checked on her husband and found him unresponsive. His death leaves five surviving members of the Courageous 12, at least two of whom he once persuaded to become police officers.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2248.

BIOGRAPHY

James King

Born: Dec. 10, 1934.

Died: April 7, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Catherine; stepdaughter Deborah Rivera; sister Eunice Williams; granddaughter Stacia Hammond and her husband Todd; and two great-grandchildren.

Service: Visitation 1 p.m. Thursday, McRae Funeral Home, 1940 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S; service 11 a.m. Friday; Bethel AME Church, 912 Third Ave. N.

James King, one of Courageous 12 of St. Petersburg police, dies at 75 04/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2010 6:12pm]
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