TAMPA — By 1974, the Tampa police officers who would come to be known as the Fearless Four knew they had to act.
Though the process to desegregate America had begun decades earlier, racism and discrimination in Tampa Police Department were keeping doors closed for Black officers who wanted to rise through the ranks.
“It was the practice of the police department to maintain the segregation attitude toward Blacks, and it was unacceptable for me,” said James Dukes in a video produced by the city.
So Dukes and some of his coworkers met and hatched a plan: They would sue the city. And they won.
Four and a half decades later, Dukes and the three other officers who filed the suit — Frank Gray, Rufus Lewis and Clarence Nathan — are being honored for their efforts to help Black employees in the department and throughout city government enjoy the same opportunities as their white counterparts. A memorial to the Fearless Four will be unveiled Saturday at the department’s downtown headquarters.
Ahead of the ceremony, the city released a five-minute video in which the men recall why they took action against a department that they wanted to serve but that often made them feel unwelcome — or worse — and reflect on the progress Black officers have made since then. The city has also dedicated a section of its web site to the men featuring short bios and other details.
“We were excluded from a lot of classifications and certifications and jobs in the department and we asked why and they really couldn’t give us a definitive reason or a definitive answer,” said Lewis, a St. Petersburg native who grew up in that city’s Jordan Park neighborhood and joined the Tampa department in 1967.
Dukes, a Vietnam veteran who joined the department in 1970 after being discharged from the military, recalled how white officers used the n-word and how, though the signs separating restrooms and water fountains for Black people were removed, “there was an unwritten rule that still applied.”
Gray grew up in East Tampa’s Jackson Heights neighborhood and joined the U.S. Army Reserves at 17. While stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, he witnessed a troubling encounter between two white police officers and a Black female victim of domestic violence that inspired him to become a cop. He said he wanted to prevent others in the Black community from being mistreated the same way. Gray joined the Tampa department in 1963.
At the time the men considered filing the lawsuit, there were only about 16 officers at the department, Gray said. He remembers meeting at Lewis house to discuss strategy ahead of the suit. They opted not to have any of the officers who were close to retirement get involved. They also waved off a young officer named Bennie Holder.
“We told him no, we did not want him to jeopardize his career, but we wanted him to prepare to go through the doors that were going to be opened as a result of this suit,” Gray said.
The four men filed their complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1974. The fears of repercussions were realized, said Nathan, who grew up in Tampa, attended segregated schools and joined the department in 1971.
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“When city was first notified of the lawsuit, I was transferred three times in one day, my vacation was canceled and I was ordered back to work that evening,” he said.
Dukes said he knew that he and other Black officers would probably benefit from filing the lawsuit.
“But I never dreamed in a million years that it would be as far-reaching as it did go,” he said. “It changed the face of the city forever.”
The win didn’t come overnight. As they waited for a resolution, Dukes left the department to become a deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Finally, on May 20, 1976, then-Mayor William F. “Bill” Poe, Sr. signed a conciliatory agreement with the employment commission that spelled out how the city would weed out discrimination from its hiring and promotion practices so that Blacks and women were equally considered for positions where they had been excluded or underrepresented.
In the police department, that meant access to training opportunities, specialty assignments and leadership positions.
After Poe signed the pact, some effects were immediate, if uneven, Lewis said.
“Some people got promoted, and some didn’t that should have,” he said. “And then the entire city government — the water works, the library, whatever part of the city government that the city was responsible for — benefited somewhat from this lawsuit.”
Gray retired as a corporal in 1981. Lewis went on to help create the department’s school resource officer program and retired as a sergeant in 1983. Nathan retired as a lieutenant in 1985 and still serves as a department chaplain. Dukes left the Sheriff’s Office in 1981 to be a special investigator for the Hillsborough County School District. He retired in 2004.
Over the years, the men watched as Black officers ascended to the highest reaches of the department. Among them was that young officer Bennie Holder, who was tapped in 2005 by then-Mayor Sandy Freedman to serve as police chief, the first Black person to hold that post. Holder kept the job for a decade, the longest tenured chief in the history of the department.
“I see our footprint on all that’s occurring right now,” Nathan said. “You should always have some aspiration to go higher in this agency and particularly now that the opportunities that are there for you.”
Saturday’s ceremony to honor the Fearless Four begins at 11 a.m. at the Tampa Police Department, 411 N Franklin St. The four men will be on hand to unveil a historical monument dedicated to their efforts. Find out more information on the event here.