St. Petersburg's 'Courageous 12' officers see familiar struggle 50 years later

The last living members of the Courageous 12 reflect on race and justice then and now.
Published May 31 2015
Updated June 1 2015

Freddie Crawford didn't always carry his gun when he patrolled the streets of St. Petersburg in the 1960s. • "I didn't need it," said Crawford, now 77. "Those people, they knew me. I knew them." • Crawford's biggest challenge as an officer wasn't the people, it was the racist and segregated system in which he worked. • At that time, black officers in St. Petersburg couldn't arrest whites, work in certain parts of town or move up the ranks. • Things got so bad that in 1965, a dozen of them sued the city for discrimination. They prevailed, and became known as the "Courageous 12." • Today, blacks serve at all levels in law enforcement. Black men lead two of Tampa Bay's biggest police agencies. • It has been 50 years since that landmark case, and the country is once again grappling with widespread unrest over race and justice.

Part of the problem, say Crawford and Leon Jackson, the last surviving members of the 12, is that modern police departments may be more diverse, but in many ways they've lost touch with those they serve.

"There's been a huge change for the betterment of minority police officers," said Jackson, 74, "but still we need to change police attitudes towards blacks and minorities."

St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway feels the same. Five or so years ago, the chief said, he didn't always wear his bullet-resistant vest.

"Those days are long gone," he said. "We got to the point where we go into the African-American community, or any community, we make an arrest, and we leave.

"There are no ties."

• • •

In 1965, the rules for St. Petersburg's black police officers were firm.

They could not work behind the front desk. They had to use separate water fountains and lockers and cars. They were allowed to patrol only the black areas of town.

And they could not arrest whites.

Their own people called them "half-police officers."

Their own colleagues spray-painted "n------" in their locker room.

"They hired black police officers to police blacks only," Jackson said. "Basically what they were telling us is 'We don't want you here, and the only reason we got you here is to keep the colored people in line.' "

Their response to that, Jackson said: "We are here to stay and we're going to keep everybody in line."

The officers took their concerns to the police chief. He promised to get back to them. Weeks passed. They met for a second time. Nothing changed. The chief would not meet with them for a third time.

So the group turned to the courts. They knew the risks, professionally and personally. They could be fired. Or they could be shot or lynched for speaking out.

"When we filed that lawsuit, we put everything on the line," said Jackson, the group's unofficial historian. "It was risky. We had bills to pay. We had families to take care of.

"Those people could have fired us, they could have suspended us. We broke the rules, big time. "

They lost — at first. But three years later, in 1968, a federal appeals court sided with the Courageous 12.

In the spring of 1969, Jackson became the first black officer assigned to an all-white area, in northeast St. Petersburg.

• • •

The ripple effect had begun.

A few years later, four black Tampa police officers filed their own discrimination lawsuit and won.

Bennie Holder would have been the fifth plaintiff in that case. But his comrades persuaded him not to sign onto the lawsuit because he was still a probationary officer. He would have little to no recourse if his bosses retaliated against him.

Two decades later, Holder became the city of Tampa's first black police chief. In the same era, Goliath "Go" Davis became the first black police chief in St. Petersburg.

Davis and Holder, who developed personal relationships with members of the Courageous 12, said they felt they needed to pick up where the other men left off.

"Racial equality is not a destination, it's a journey," Davis said. "If we're going to truly honor these guys, we have to continually ensure that we're doing things that secure and protect the rights of all individuals.

"Not just the police officers, but also the community they serve."

The retired chiefs said they tried to do that by focusing on minority recruitment and advancement.

There were 15 black officers in St. Petersburg when the lawsuit was filed. Now there are 78, and Holloway said he plans an even bigger recruiting push soon.

"Obviously there's been a lot of improvement," Holder said. "But we can't just sit back and rest on their accomplishments.

"Having a black police chief is not a panacea."

Recent events around the nation prove that, say the former chiefs and the last of the Courageous 12.

Baltimore, a place where blacks lead City Hall and the police department, was rocked by protests this year after the April death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old black man was fatally injured while riding in the back of a police van. Six officers were indicted on charges of murder and manslaughter in connection with his death.

That was only the latest in a string of violent — and often fatal — encounters between police officers and blacks that has led to a national conversation about the way law enforcement interacts with minorities.

The flashpoint was the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer on Aug. 9. The U.S. Justice Department cleared the officer who killed Brown, 18, but concluded the police department disproportionately targeted poor blacks for enforcement and excessive fines.

Outrage and protests also followed the choking death of Eric Garner, 43, in New York City and the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, who was killed by an officer after the child was seen with a toy gun.

The bay area has seen its share of unrest as well after white officers shot and killed black men, in Tampa in the 1960s and St. Petersburg in the 1990s.

Jackson said it disturbs him greatly to see where the country is at now. He said body cameras could go a long way to protecting and rebuilding trust between the police and the public.

"You treat a person as a human beings, that's not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of professionalism," Jackson said. "Police officers nowadays feel like they have to kill somebody."

Crawford said officers need more training, but they could also learn from the example he and others set years ago in building relationships.

Both men also said incidents like these will keep happening if progress in education and employment continues to be stunted in poor, and often minority, communities.

"You can't have this type of mixture," said Crawford, who went on to work on national civil rights issues and now lives in Miami.

"We should have been over this whole thing years ago."

• • •

Jackson said he never thought he would live long enough to see a black chief of police in his hometown.

It's happened twice now, on both sides of Tampa Bay.

Holloway was appointed to head the St. Petersburg agency nearly a year ago. Eric Ward was appointed in Tampa this month. Both men started their careers in the 1980s, long after the story of the Courageous 12 had already faded from the community's memory.

It was also about the time the country started to grapple with the war on drugs and the crack epidemic.

That was also when ties between communities and police officers began to fray, Holloway said. He cited old "weed and seed" programs that promised to rid areas of criminals and reinvest in those neighborhoods.

"1985 — that's when I saw the African American community go upside down," Holloway said. "The world changed, I mean literally changed, overnight. And I think we went in the mode of weed, weed, weed, and not seed, seed, seed.

"We need to turn that seed switch back on again."

Holloway said he's trying to do that with his "Park, Walk and Talk" program in St. Petersburg, which mandates that every one of his officers get out of their car and talk to residents for at least one hour a week.

Ward sees it slightly differently.

Tampa officers are active in the community, the police chief said, and many have worked the same neighborhoods for years.

"I think we're going in the right direction," Ward said. "Our agency is like a melting pot."

Currently, the Justice Department is reviewing whether Tampa police disproportionately ticketed black bicyclists in recent years.

But Ward said his officers already have a strong bond with the community, and it's only going to get better.

"We have one of the most progressive and compassionate agencies, and that keeps our relationship between the community and our officers solid," Ward said. "That's the reason we don't have the mass protests and the bricks and bottles being thrown."

• • •

Jackson wishes that more people appreciated the history they made.

"Success to me was breaking the racial barrier at the police department," he said. "I want them to know that the lawsuit was not just for us.

"It was for them."

Jackson, who still lives in St. Petersburg, said even he knows hardly any current police officers.

Today, for the first time, he will meet Holloway.

The chief will be there when Jackson and Crawford are honored at a ceremony commemorating the Courageous 12. It will start at 5 p.m. today at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, 2240 Ninth Ave. S in St. Petersburg.

When Jackson does meet Holloway, he'll learn that the chief's idea of success will be for his officers to build the kinds of relationships that police had with the community half a century ago.

"We talk about community policing, and that's a nice word," Holloway said. "But I think we should be talking about community relationships.

"My measure of success will be when we and the public start trusting each other again."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kameel Stanley at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. [email protected]