A cowardly plaque for the Courageous 12

Freddie Lee Crawford

From the family of Freddie Crawford

ST. PETERSBURG — Heroes are memorialized in bronze and stone for historic contributions to our society – serving their communities, protecting them from danger, leading a path toward change. The Courageous 12 check all those boxes and more, yet last Tuesday, they were honored with just a simple plaque.

Actually, “honored” is a generous term, considering how the gesture shows more disrespect than genuine appreciation. Decades ago, in the face of deep-seated racism, 12 black police officers concluded that they had an obligation to serve and protect all members of their community to the fullest extent, not just those who looked like them.

At the time, the black officers were only allowed to patrol black neighborhoods and could not arrest whites. In 1965, these courageous 12 men sued the City of St. Petersburg for equal rights when performing their duties. They faced prejudice from the community and injustice from the court system through the dismissal of their case in 1966, even though the 1964 Civil Rights Act had been enacted two years prior.

It wasn’t until they won their appeal two years later that these determined men won the basic rights afforded to the uniform they wore – rights their white colleagues had enjoyed for years. This landmark lawsuit generated years of meaningful progress, to an era where black men and women have served proudly in positions of leadership on the police force.

Many other cities have celebrated feats like this with museums, installations and towering, awe-inspiring statues – but not St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, heroic civil rights advocates merely get a frame on a wall.

The Public Arts Commission has committed a budget for a larger art exhibit, and while this is a step in the right direction, it should have been the mayor’s first inclination. Instead, the honor these men deserve has been reduced to an afterthought, a cleanup job after the plaque recognizing them failed to inspire the level of pride within the community that this magnitude of courage deserves. The promise of a better memorial later shows that this was not a priority now.

The legacy of the Courageous 12 lives on through one surviving member, Mr. Leon Jackson, who was the mayor’s “special guest” for the insufficient plaque ceremony. It is a travesty that he had to watch his brave fight for progress and equality be recognized with nothing more than a plaque on a wall, like an elementary school test hanging on a refrigerator.

In today’s era, we are continually grappling with the implications of statues memorializing those with tainted pasts. This would have been a perfect opportunity to use the medium to celebrate progress and bravery instead. Clearly, the city missed it.

This short commentary was provided by the family of Freddie Lee Crawford, who in his discontent with the unfair treatment, was able to rally the other 11 members of the Courageous 12 to initiate a lawsuit against the City of St. Petersburg.

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