The assistant police chief faced the standing-room only crowd in his crisp dress blues and repeated the refrain of the evening: "Without them, I would not be able to stand before you."
Beside him were the last two surviving members of the city's Courageous 12, the black police officers who sued St. Petersburg for discrimination 50 years ago and prevailed. A vase of 10 red roses commemorated the others in a ceremony Sunday that honored the men and called for young people to follow their example.
"In order to be a part of the solution, you have to be part of the issue," Luke Williams, assistant police chief, continued. "We had 12 young men who actually stepped forward and said, 'We're going to make a difference in the atmosphere in which we work,' and in the process of doing that, you made a difference in the city in which we live."
A half-century since the landmark case, black men lead police departments in St. Petersburg and Tampa, but tensions over race and policing run high across the country. Recruiting men and women of color, and letting them know policing is a viable career, Williams said, is crucial in repairing that rift.
"We want to challenge our young to know that this is a profession that is honorable, that they can be a part of, that they can make a good living at, and have a safe community," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
A diverse police force shows respect for its community and sends a message that it values minorities as human beings, Rouson said.
At the time the Courageous 12's lawsuit was filed, just 15 officers in the department were black. That number has increased to 78, and Chief Tony Holloway plans a recruiting push soon. He, too, wants new recruits to become "part of the solution."
He praised Freddie Crawford and Leon Jackson for their courage in helping overturn the racist, segregated system in which they worked.
"They opened a door for a lot of us to be where we are today," Holloway said. "If they hadn't gone forward and asked that question — Why couldn't they patrol a different part of the community? — I probably wouldn't be standing here today."
Mayor Rick Kriseman commended Jackson and Crawford for bearing the torch for a cause "that helped lead not just our great city but America to a new era of inclusiveness and justice.
"It is a struggle that continues today," he said, and said he trusts in Holloway to "restore a trust that once existed."
In the 1960s, African-American officers in St. Petersburg couldn't arrest whites or even patrol outside black areas of town. They were harassed, called "half police officers," and forbidden from moving up the ranks.
The 12 officers brought their grievances about the discrimination to the police chief, who evaded them. In a move that put practically everything on the line, they took the issue to the courts.
At first, they lost. But in 1968, a federal appeals court awarded them a victory. And a ripple effect began.
At the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum on Sunday night, a gospel choir sang: St. Petersburg strong and it won't be long. Baltimore strong and it won't be long. Ferguson strong and it won't be long. Freedom's coming and it won't be long.
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Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at email@example.com or (727) 893-8321.