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The last of the ‘Courageous 12′ wants to make sure the group’s sacrifice is not forgotten

Leon Jackson and 11 other black police officers filed a lawsuit in 1965 to get equal treatment in the St. Petersburg Police Department
In 1965, Leon Jackson was one of 12 African-American police officers in St. Petersburg who filed a lawsuit to be treated equally with their white colleagues. Lately, he's been proud to see so many African-Americans leading law enforcement departments around the country, but he wants them to know on whose shoulders they are standing. Jackson has written a book, "Urban Buffalo Soldiers, the Story of St. Petersburg's Courageous Twelve," that tells about the indignities they experienced as black police officers and their fight for equality.
In 1965, Leon Jackson was one of 12 African-American police officers in St. Petersburg who filed a lawsuit to be treated equally with their white colleagues. Lately, he's been proud to see so many African-Americans leading law enforcement departments around the country, but he wants them to know on whose shoulders they are standing. Jackson has written a book, "Urban Buffalo Soldiers, the Story of St. Petersburg's Courageous Twelve," that tells about the indignities they experienced as black police officers and their fight for equality. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | TImes ]
Published Jun. 20, 2020

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.

Chief of Police Anthony Holloway (left) points to an old picture of Leon Jackson, who is the sole surviving member of the Courageous 12, (right) before a Courageous 12 plaque dedication October 29 in the Media Room at The St. Petersburg Police Department Headquarters. The year after the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act was signed into law, 12 of the department's 15 black officers filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Petersburg, demanding that black officers be given the same rights as white officers. Though the first judge's ruling was not in their favor, they appealed and won the lawsuit on August 1, 1968. They became known as "The Courageous 12." The decision gave African-American officers and essentially all minorities in law enforcement the right to serve their communities with the same rights as their counterparts.
Chief of Police Anthony Holloway (left) points to an old picture of Leon Jackson, who is the sole surviving member of the Courageous 12, (right) before a Courageous 12 plaque dedication October 29 in the Media Room at The St. Petersburg Police Department Headquarters. The year after the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act was signed into law, 12 of the department's 15 black officers filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Petersburg, demanding that black officers be given the same rights as white officers. Though the first judge's ruling was not in their favor, they appealed and won the lawsuit on August 1, 1968. They became known as "The Courageous 12." The decision gave African-American officers and essentially all minorities in law enforcement the right to serve their communities with the same rights as their counterparts. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

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.

Jeanette Bright, who worked for the St. Petersburg Police Department for 32 years, hugs Courageous 12 member Leon Jackson after a plaque dedication in October at the St. Petersburg Police Department Headquarters. "Mr. Jackson is one of the ones whose shoulders we stood on," she said. "If it hadn't been for their courageousness, I wouldn't have been on the street working as a police officer and victim advocate for 32 years of my life. I appreciate the legacy."
Jeanette Bright, who worked for the St. Petersburg Police Department for 32 years, hugs Courageous 12 member Leon Jackson after a plaque dedication in October at the St. Petersburg Police Department Headquarters. "Mr. Jackson is one of the ones whose shoulders we stood on," she said. "If it hadn't been for their courageousness, I wouldn't have been on the street working as a police officer and victim advocate for 32 years of my life. I appreciate the legacy." [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Related: Plaque in new St. Pete Police headquarters honors “Courageous 12” African-American officers

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.

Freddie Crawford was one of the last living members of the 'Courageous 12,' a group of black St. Petersburg police officers who sued the city in 1965 to gain the right to arrest white people. [Courtesy St. Petersburg Police Department]
Freddie Crawford was one of the last living members of the 'Courageous 12,' a group of black St. Petersburg police officers who sued the city in 1965 to gain the right to arrest white people. [Courtesy St. Petersburg Police Department]

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.”

Related: One of the last living members of St. Petersburg's 'Courageous 12' has died

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.

Related: From the archives: 'Courageous 12' officers fought discrimination — and won

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.”