ST. PETERSBURG — Leon Jackson remembers being dropped off with a fellow black police officer to patrol what was then the bustling African-American business and entertainment district of St. Petersburg.
“We didn’t have any cruiser. We didn’t have any radio,” he said. If there was trouble, they had to go into one of the bars or stores along 22nd Street S — known as the Deuces — and ask to use the phone so they could call back to headquarters.
It was just one of the many indignities of being a black officer in the St. Petersburg Police Department in the 1960s, before a landmark lawsuit by “the Courageous 12” forced change.
They were forbidden from using the water fountain near the front desk at headquarters. It said, “whites only.” At the time, there were just 15 black officers on the force. They were allowed to patrol only black neighborhoods, their lockers were grouped together at the back of the locker room and they were denied opportunities for promotion.
In 1965, a year after the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, the black officers decided they’d had enough. Led by Freddie Lee Crawford, they filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the city of St. Petersburg. Of the 15 officers, a sergeant and two detectives decided not to participate. The Courageous 12 won their case on Aug. 1, 1968.
Jackson has written a book about their experience, “Urban Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of St. Petersburg’s Courageous Twelve.” He vows that their groundbreaking fight, credited with paving the way for later generations of black police officers and chiefs throughout the nation, will not be forgotten.
“We were the Jackie Robinson of police integration,” he said.
Last fall, the Courageous 12 were honored with a ceremony at the city’s new police headquarters. A plaque was unveiled honoring Freddie Lee Crawford — the group’s leader — along with Adam Baker, Raymond DeLoach, Charles Hollands, Robert Keys, Primus Killen, James King, Johnnie B. Lewis, Horace Nero, Jerry Styles, Nathanial Wooten and Jackson.
Only Jackson, 79, was still alive to witness the ceremony. Crawford had died a few months earlier.
“It was an honor,” Jackson said, adding that it was a bittersweet moment because of his missing colleagues. “I’m going to carry on the battle for the rest of those officers. We were so close. We were just like brothers. ... We stood up and challenged racism in that department ... knowing we could have been fired.”
They began by meeting at each other’s homes on Sunday evenings to plan their strategy. Initially, they tried to get Police Chief Harold Smith to address their concerns.
“He was mild. He didn’t show any anger or anything,” Jackson said. “We told him that we were only assigned in colored neighborhoods. We told him that we should be able to work all over the city like the white officers, and it’s not that we don’t want to work in the colored neighborhoods.”
They also complained that they weren’t allowed to take the sergeant’s exam. The department’s only black sergeant, Jackson explained, was limited to supervising black officers. Smith, said he would get back to them and declined a request for a third meeting, Jackson said.
Attorney James B. Sanderlin filed their lawsuit in federal court on May 11, 1965. For the 12 officers and their families, it was a financial sacrifice.
“Each pay period, we paid $5, $15, $20 to pay for the lawyer and the court costs,” Jackson said.
It wasn’t easy at work. “We got some backlash,” he said. “Some of the white officers stopped speaking with us. We knew what we were getting into, but we decided we were going to push on. It was rough.”
Federal District Judge Joseph Lieb dismissed the case in March 1966. When Sanderlin said he could appeal the decision, the men told him they couldn’t afford to proceed. Sanderlin was able to get the NAACP to help. Victory came on Aug. 1, 1968, when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the federal court’s decision.
Jackson credits Goliath Davis, who became St. Petersburg’s first black police chief in 1997, with giving the group its name.
“When you look at the discrimination and the inequities they faced, it took a lot for them to stand up against the discrimination they faced,” Davis said. “When they prevailed, it opened doors for everybody that followed, not only in St. Pete and the Tampa Bay area, but in the Southeast area and the nation.”
Jackson went on to become the first African-American assigned to train to investigate accidents, but learned that the officer assigned with him was the only white officer who would agree to work with him. Jackson went on to work in white neighborhoods, including prestigious Snell Isle.
“I didn’t have any problems,” he said.
Reacting to the current crisis involving police treatment of black people, Jackson said he supports protesters, as long as they follow the law. Law enforcement officers, especially white police officers, must receive sensitivity training, he said.
“They are going to have to learn to treat African-American citizens like human beings. They are going to have to be accountable,” he added.
“When you look at where we are today in terms of law enforcement ... and you think back to when those guys were policing and working the neighborhoods, I call them the forerunners of community policing in St. Pete,” Davis said. “They policed with humility and compassion, and they had a very strong bond with the communities they served.”