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Plaque in new St. Pete Police headquarters honors “Courageous 12” African-American officers

Just one member of the group that filed a civil rights suit against St. Petersburg in 1965 is still alive.

ST. PETERSBURG — Leon Jackson said he never dreamed that the anti-discrimination lawsuit he and 11 of his fellow police officers filed during the tumultuous civil rights era would have made history.

Their suit opened doors for African-American and other minority officers nationwide. St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway cited himself as an example. Retired Palmetto Police Chief Garry Lowe agreed. He was in Tuesday’s standing room only crowd for the unveiling of a plaque to recognize St. Petersburg’s “Courageous 12.”

It was another acknowledgement of the 12 African-American police officers who defied fear of losing their jobs and further ostracism to fight for the same rights as white officers. The year was 1965 and one of the many indignities they suffered was being forbidden to drink from the water fountain next to the front desk in the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Tuesday, the plaque honoring each of the 12 black officers — Jackson, Freddie Lee Crawford, Adam Baker, Raymond DeLoach, Charles Hollands, Robert Keys, Primus Killen, James King, Johnnie B. Lewis, Horace Nero, Jerry Styles and Nathanial Wooten — was unveiled in the lobby of the new police headquarters.

Jackson, 79, is the only surviving member of the group. Crawford, who led the effort to file the lawsuit against the city in 1965, a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act, died in May.

RELATED: One of the last living members of St. Petersburg’s ‘Courageous 12’ has died

“Faith and resilience" were the two things that the Courageous 12 exhibited when they filed their lawsuit, Mayor Rick Kriseman said. The men, he added, made the city, state and nation a better and fairer place to live and work.

Putting their actions into perspective, he noted that the black officers filed their suit two years before the then St. Petersburg Times ended its Negro pages, three years before the sanitation strike of mostly black workers and six years before court-ordered busing to end segregation.

“What they did and when they did was in a word, courageous,” Kriseman said.

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 on Tuesday
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 on Tuesday [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

At the time the men filed their suit, there were 15 African-American officers in the department, but only 12 agreed to participate. The others, a sergeant and two detectives, felt they had too much to lose by challenging the status quo.

“We took a big chance. We knew they could fire us,” Jackson told the Tampa Bay Times before Tuesday’s ceremony. He offered advice to today’s youth: “If you see something that’s unjust, stand up for what is right. That’s what we did.”

The whites-only drinking fountain was just one issue. Black officers were only allowed to patrol black neighborhoods. They could not arrest whites and opportunities for promotion were virtually non-existent. They were forbidden from using the same locker rooms and cars as white officers.

RELATED: From the archives: ‘Courageous 12’ officers fought discrimination — and won

The men had to take out a bank loan to file their suit, which was dismissed by federal district Judge Joseph Lieb in March 1966. Two years later, it was won on appeal on Aug. 1, 1968. The victory against discrimination went beyond St. Petersburg, setting a precedent for minorities serving in law enforcement agencies across the nation.

The plaque unveiled Tuesday was the second to honor the Courageous 12 at St. Peterburg’s Police headquarters. The first, wooden, with a copy of a St. Petersburg Times article, hung in the old police station’s lobby.

Some would like to see a more impressive form of recognition within the community. Kriseman praised Council Member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman for her push for a monument and the Public Arts Commission, which has voted to allocate $100,000 “to kickstart” the effort.

Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said the mayor “would like to see a community group developed much the same way other monuments have come together” and that the city would donate land, if needed.