ST. PETERSBURG — On the job, Robert Keys looked like a police officer. He had a gun and a nightstick, a badge and a car.
He tangled with bad guys and made lots of arrests.
The problem was, neither Mr. Keys nor the other black St. Petersburg cops beside him had the same opportunities afforded white officers.
The inequities were as visible as the separate water fountains, the assigned dressing area for black officers and the "C-cars" (for "colored") they drove.
Worse, some of the people they were protecting saw them as sellouts, even comparing the officers to overseers on a plantation. Mr. Keys and fellow officers were assigned to Zone 13, a gerrymandered police district comprising three African-American areas, two on the city's south side and one just north of Central Avenue on what is now Dr. Martin Luther King Street N.
They faced down shotguns, handguns and knives. Requests for reassignment were consistently denied. Mr. Keys kept his colleagues grounded.
"I've never seen Keys angry, never seen him lose his temper," said Adam Baker, 77, who patrolled Zone 13 beside him. "We had tempers like a trip wire. One of his famous quotes was, 'You've got to have presence.' If you don't have presence, people in that community will run you off the street."
In 1965, 12 of 15 black officers on the force, including Mr. Keys, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city. That move by the "Courageous 12" put an end to de facto segregation in the police department.
Mr. Keys — one of the few surviving members of the 12 — died Aug. 22 after a lengthy illness. He was 79.
"The racism and the conditions they suffered were intolerable," said former Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, who was also the city's first African-American police chief. "I am where I am today because of the sacrifices those 12 individuals made."
Mr. Keys believed in the cause, but the timing of the lawsuit could not have been worse. In 1965, around the time the group decided to file, a housing project evicted the family, saying Mr. Keys' $50-a-week salary was too high.
'It was very scary," said Betty Keys, 75, his wife. "He said, 'Bet, we've got six children. If I lose my job, I don't know what I'm going to do.'"
Robert Victor Keys was born in Marianna in 1933 but grew up in Jordan Park. He played football at Gibbs High School, as did most of the Courageous 12, and married Betty Smith a few months after he graduated in 1954.
He joined the police force in 1963, the year he was elected president of the Sportsman's Club, a men's service club founded by Gibbs graduates. The answer to his housing problem in 1965 came quickly with news of a three-bedroom home on the market.
At home he ironed his daughters' clothes and sewed on buttons. He even tried valiantly to fix their hair.
"We learned to fix our own real fast," said daughter Debra Thompson, 58.
He told them colorful stories. There was the time, for example, when Mr. Keys was fishing with friends as a storm approached.
Thompson said her father dropped his voice to a low growl, imitating the thunder as it spoke to the boat: "Y'all better get on up out of here …” The story builds with another warning or two, culminating with an escape amid blinding veins of lightning and stinging rain.
In more serious times, such as the lawsuit, Mr. Keys stayed cool. "He would tell me all the time, 'Bet, don't you worry till you see me worry,' " his wife said.
"I'd say, 'Well, when are you going to start to worry?' "
Mr. Keys and his colleagues won their suit in 1968 in an appeals court ruling. He eventually retired from the police force and spent 10 years as an insurance agent for the American National Insurance Company.
In 2007, the city awarded keys to the city to the Courageous 12 or surviving family members. Four have since died. Mr. Keys' death leaves three still alive: Baker, Freddie Crawford and Leon Jackson.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.