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‘Courageous 12’ honored on 50th anniversary of lawsuit
BY HOLLY KESTENIS Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – It’s been 50 years since the Courageous 12, a group of African-American police officers, took a stand and sued the City of St. Petersburg for discrimination, and won.
The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, located at 2240 9th Ave. S., was packed Sunday evening all to honor the 12 men who changed law enforcement in St. Petersburg, and to show support for its members.
Even amongst rising tensions between the black community and officers nationwide, the sacrifices that law enforcement makes every day, regardless of their race, cannot be forgotten.
“Last year 51 police officers were killed nationally in the line of duty,” said State Representative Darryl Rouson. And at a time when some officers are under attack all across the country, Rouson wants the work of the majority to not be overshadowed. “Today we want to honor the good men and women of law enforcement.”
The event was a mix of who’s who in St. Petersburg, from Reverend Kenny Irby, also the Senior Faculty of Visual Journalism and Diversity at the Poynter Institute, giving the invocation, to judges, prosecutors to Mayor Rick Kriseman who took a moment to speak.
“We can’t be a city of opportunity without the work they do on our behalf,” he said speaking of today’s police department and the historical significance of what 12 courageous men did 50 years ago to build a stronger network within law enforcement. It “was above and beyond the call of duty.”
“City Manager Lynn Andrews was very much in control of the police department,” said Former Mayor Don Jones seen here standing in the middle of Crawford (left) and Jackson (right). “He and I had two entirely different views of what the future of St. Petersburg should be like.”
It was 1965. Racial tensions were high in St. Petersburg, when a group of black police officers, later named the Courageous 12, filed a suit against the city demanding the right to patrol white neighborhoods, to make arrests and not be limited by the color of their skin. They wanted to be integrated fully into the police department. Backed by two lawyers, James B. Sanderlin and Frank Peterman Sr., the Courageous 12 stood up for basic human rights.
“Officers today stand on their shoulders because of the work they did,” said Rouson. By standing up and calling attention to the hidden injustices in local law enforcement, the Courageous 12 paved a path for local legends in the making, such as Police Chief Eric Ward of the Tampa Police Department and Police Chief Anthony Holloway here in St. Petersburg to be treated as citizens and not looked down upon because of their race.
Former St. Petersburg Police Chief and Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis also stand on the shoulder of these 12 great men. Being St. Petersburg’s first black police chief, he acknowledged in 2012 at another celebration for the Courageous 12 that: “If they hadn’t stood up, I couldn’t stand here tonight and tell you that I was able to reach the highest pinnacle in the City of St. Petersburg Police Department. If they had not stood up, then we would still be fighting that fight.”
There are only two remaining survivors of the original 12, Freddie Crawford and Leon Jackson. Jackson, the first black St. Petersburg officer to be assigned to a white unit, discussed what it was like when he was in the police academy. Integrated, if only slightly, 20 plus white officers with two black officers, Jackson doesn’t recall many issues.
“Little racial things were said, it didn’t bother me,” remembered Jackson, “my mind was on studying.”
After graduating, the true discrimination took hold and Jackson realized that the police department was not integrated at all. Black officers were only being assigned to black neighborhoods, no desk jobs for African Americans.
“We could not investigate complaints from whites, we couldn’t arrest whites,” said Jackson. Some of the younger folks in the standing room only crowd shook their heads in disgust. It seems almost unbelievable. “Promotion was nonexistent,” continued Jackson. There was one black sergeant and he was in charge of the black police officers. He was not permitted to supervise the white police officers.
But the 12 men were tight. Ten of them played football together at Gibbs High School, already a team. So after repeated attempts to discuss the issues with their chief and gain equality in the workplace, the Courageous 12 soon realized they were being shunned.
“The only thing the man would say was ‘I’ll get back with you,’” explained Jackson. Knowing that the racial issues at hand were not going to be addressed in the conventional route, Crawford suggested suing the police department.
“We decided to try to equalize the playing field,” said Crawford who admits it was a long arduous battle to embark upon, but well worth the struggle. “We were just determined to do it all the way, take it to the limit.”
From the 12 officers, to the two lawyers who fought for them, and to the family members who stood by them during one of the most tumultuous times in St. Petersburg’s history, all agree that fighting for the respect of the community was the right thing to do.
Also at the program in 2012, Peterman, Sr. gave an account of the mistreatment black officers received from sadistic comments to getting hand me down uniforms.
“Those were times when just standing for what was right would put your life in jeopardy,” Peterman told the crowd. “It’s just that simple.”
Peterman recounted how he and Sanderlin endured threats from the Klu Klux Clan. “They told me what they were gonna do and I said, ‘bring it on. I’ll give you a warm welcome.’”
And while the road to equality has been long and hard, St. Petersburg’s African-American community knows the importance of keeping the history alive, no matter how painful the memories are. When audience members were permitted to ask Crawford and Jackson about their experiences, one supporter in the crowd couldn’t withhold his passion.
“It’s not just the black officers that help us; it’s the white officers too,” he said adamant that police need to get out to the schools and spread the word that building a relationship with law enforcement, no matter the color of skin, is pertinent to solving some of today’s issues. “We’ve done this city an injustice by not applauding them; we should be sitting them on a platform.”
Something Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams can concur with. He believes that the youth of today need to be made aware that law enforcement is a viable career choice and one that would make the 12 young men who stepped up 50 years ago proud that their sacrifice continues to be recognized today.
“This isn’t about any one individual,” Williams said. “In order to be part of the solution, you have to be part of the issue.”
Mayor Kriseman presented Crawford and Jackson with awards for their service to the St. Petersburg Police Department. Other awards were given out honoring current police department members Sergeant Larry B. Hordge, Sr., Lieutenant Frank J. Williams, Captain Adrian Arnold and Deputy John Patrick.
Pictures of the Courageous 12 are being donated to the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. Residents, both young and old are encouraged to stop by and delve into a local history that helped shape the nation.