ST. PETERSBURG –One Sunday morning while on patrol, Officer Leon Jackson of the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) spotted a car barreling its way across Central Avenue, haphazardly swerving over the centerline, running red lights and even slamming against the curb.
Jackson flipped on his patrol car’s flashing lights and gave chase. The driver refused to stop, making Jackson pursue him all the way to the corner of Central and 66th Street, where the chase ended outside a strip mall.
As he stepped out of his cruiser and approached with caution, Jackson was aware that there wasn’t a soul stirring anywhere on the street—he was completely alone. So as to keep an advantage over whatever he was about to face from the driver’s side of the unknown car, Jackson stayed back and to the side, taking care not to walk up level to the window.
When Jackson came close enough to get a look inside, he observed a shiny object in the front seat by the driver. Shining his flashlight into the window, he saw it was a .357 magnum.
He kept his cool. He simply took his own gun out of the holster and instructed the man: “Don’t move. If you move, I’m going to shoot you.”
With his free hand, Jackson opened the car door and the man practically fell out. He was drunk.
Had this incident taken place only a few years before it did, Jackson, an African-American officer, would not have been allowed to arrest the law-breaking driver, simply because he was white. He wouldn’t even have been permitted to patrol Central Avenue.
In 1965, Jackson, along with black officers Adam Baker, Freddie Crawford, Raymond DeLoach, Charles Holland, Robert Keys, Primus Killen, James King, Johnnie B. Lewis, Horace Nero, Jerry Styles and Nathaniel Wooten filed a landmark lawsuit against the city for discrimination on the force.
For refusing to accept the status quo, for going head-to-head with the system and for ultimately opening the door of opportunity for future generations of black officers, they came to be known collectively as the courageous 12.
Joining the force
Jackson, along with Crawford, is one of two surviving members of the group. A product of Gibbs High School, he has lived in St. Pete since he was a young teen. And as a youngster he never saw himself becoming a police officer.
A 22-year-old Jackson was approached by his friend and police officer King in the early 1960s who tried to convince him to join the department. King wanted to see more black officers on the force and worked tirelessly on recruitment. At the time Jackson was waiting tables downtown at the Driftwood Cafeteria, across the street from City Hall.
Jackson told him he didn’t want to become an officer, but King persevered and urged him to fill out an application and take the exam. Crawford joined in and pushed Jackson until he relented.
“After talking with King and Crawford,” Jackson recalled, “and some people waiting tables as well said: ‘Go on and take the test, there’s no future here waiting tables.’ After all of that, I thought I should go ahead into law enforcement.”
Jackson decided to apply and take the exam. He passed and was hired in October of 1963 at the age of 23.
A department divided
When Jackson was assigned to the police academy, it was the first integrated classroom he had ever attended with over 20 white cadets and two African Americans—Keys and Jackson. After graduating from the academy, Jackson began his career as a policeman. Though officers King and Crawford had warned Jackson of the segregation within the department, he soon saw firsthand the discrepancies between the way whites and blacks were treated.
African-American police officers could not work at the front desk. They couldn’t drink out of the same water fountains as the white officers. Black officers’ lockers were separate from those of the white officers, by the back door.
Black officers also could not take the sergeant exam for promotion, as promotions were “nonexistent” for black officers, Jackson explained. There was one black sergeant, he recalled, who was in charge of the black officers. And though a sergeant, he could not supervise the white officers.
“Half police officers”
“Black police officers could not investigate complaints from whites,” Jackson said. “Black police officers could not arrest whites.”
They were assigned to work only in the so-called “colored area” of the city and were only allowed to investigate complaints from the black community. They were never assigned to Central Avenue or the Williams Park areas.
For example, Jackson and his fellow black officers had to walk the beat on one of the roughest streets in the city, Jackson said, namely the 22nd Street South corridor, which was lined with bars and clubs, known as “Zone 13.” Sometimes the officers patrolled in pairs and sometimes by themselves. Altercations between them and rowdy residents were common. The violent weekend scuffles were so frequent that the officers had to change clothes more than once during a shift, as their shirts were at times torn right off.
When the monthly assignments were posted, many times the white officers would throw jabs at Jackson such as, “You don’t have to look at the monthly assignments because you know where you’ll be working,” Jackson recalled.
Sometimes the taunts were more direct.
“When you’d come into the locker room you’d hear all kinds of racial slurs, racial jokes, racial remarks and all that,” he said.
Black officers even found the word “NIGGER” spray-painted on their lockers. Jackson said the culprits wouldn’t have cared if they had been caught.
“And if you complained about it, there was nothing going to be done,” Jackson said, admitting that the white sergeants and lieutenants simply looked the other way.
And if they caught a white person in the act of breaking the law?
“Our hands were kind of tied,” Jackson stated, “because of how the system was.”
Some of the “old-timer” officers told Jackson even if they had tried to issue white motorists tickets for infractions such as running a stop sign and the motorist in turn complained about it at the station, the black officers would be reminded by their superiors that it was generally understood that they shouldn’t harass whites. Technically, the black officers were expected to radio for a white officer to come to the scene.
And with the system being what it was, Jackson and his fellow black officers garnered little if any respect from some of the white community. While cruising in his patrol car one day, he recalled pulling up next to white lady with her children in the car. The kids were waving at Jackson and talking to him and naturally he waved back at the youngsters. The lady, visibly unhappy that her children were speaking to a black officer, remarked that her children always speak to police officers and they even speak to the “nigger” ones.
Jackson said nothing to her comment, waited for the traffic light to change, and moved on.
Not only did black officers not receive the respect that was their due as lawmen from whites, but also a part of the very community they were assigned to serve regarded them with mistrust and contempt.
“A lot of them would say we were ‘half police officers,’” Jackson said. “Because they would say, ‘You can’t arrest whites, you can’t give white people a ticket, but you can give black people tickets. You’re half police officers!’”
And basically they were right, Jackson conceded, because his own authority as a policeman was limited. These same black residents even viewed the officers as turncoats to their own people. Jackson recalled arresting a black man once, only to hear him say with scorn: “You’re nothing but a traitor! You’re nothing but a snitch! You can’t arrest whites! I wouldn’t have the job if I couldn’t arrest whites!”
These black officers were caught in the middle. Between the derision from blacks and the disrespect from whites, it sometimes took its toll on them as human beings, as they were just trying to do their jobs.
“It wore on me,” Jackson admitted, “but then again, I didn’t think of quitting or anything because I expected that from them, and to me it became routine.”
In hindsight, Jackson believes it was lucky they had the jobs after all because of what they were able to accomplish when they decided to take action.
Taking on the system
Of the 15 black officers in the department, Jackson and 11 other uniformed officers had been holding meetings amongst themselves in their homes, and had planned to take their complaints to the chief. Three of the officers—a sergeant and two detectives—had refused, saying they wanted no part of it.
“My theory is they didn’t want to rock the boat,” Jackson said. “And sometimes you have to rock the boat to get it started.”
The officers approached Chief Harold Smith with the complaint that they were only allowed to patrol the black area of the city and felt that they should be allowed to patrol all over St. Pete.
“We told him that it’s not that we didn’t want to work in the black area,” Jackson said, “but we wanted to be able to work in the entire city. We told him that white police officers could work any section of the city they wanted to work, but we were isolated to just a black neighborhood to work.”
The group of 12 officers also complained that promotion was nonexistent for them. Where white officers were promoted on a regular basis, black officers could not even take the sergeant’s exam. They complained that their arrest authority was limited to just one race, whereas white officers could arrest anyone. The black officers could only investigate complaints from one race, they also pointed out.
The chief told the officers that the reason they were always assigned to the same area was that the department believed they could handle the black neighborhood better than the white officers. But he failed to mention that white officers were also allowed to patrol Zone 13. These white officers didn’t walk the beat, but patrolled the area from their cruisers.
They met with Smith two separate times, and each time the chief told them that he’d get back with them. After getting no results, the group asked for a third meeting. Smith refused to meet with them anymore.
“We continued to have meetings among ourselves after that,” Jackson said. “And then Freddie Crawford came up with an idea. He said, ‘Let’s sue them! Let’s sue the police department!’”
The others thought this course of action would be putting them all on the spot. They could be reprimanded, suspended or worse—fired.
But Crawford was seeing red by this point. “‘I don’t care! Let’s sue the you-know-what!’” was his response to that, Jackson claimed, cleaning up Crawford’s colorful language.
Things got quiet. Then one of the officers spoke up. He suggested either taking a vote on the matter now or thinking it over some more. Jackson recalled that it was Holland who said: “There’s nothing to think about it. It’s either you want to file a lawsuit or you don’t want to file a lawsuit!”
They all agreed to vote on it then and there. It was unanimous.
“Everybody was 100 percent all in,” Jackson said.
Baker said that they’d need to hire a lawyer, Jackson recalled. Baker had known James B. Sanderlin to be a good civil rights lawyer. So Crawford and Baker met with Sanderlin at a drug store and told him that they had all voted to file a lawsuit against the police department for discrimination, and wanted to know if he’d be their lawyer.
Sanderlin wanted to make sure all the officers knew just what kind of a struggle they were about to take on.
“‘You think you guys have it hard now?’” Jackson recalled Sanderlin telling them. “‘You guy are really going to really have it hard. You’re willing to go through all this?’”
The officers told him they were.
“You know they can fire you, don’t you?” Sanderlin then asked them.
They said they were aware of the possible repercussions.
“You guys are willing to risk your careers? You know you have families to support, children to take care of,” Sanderlin reminded them. “Houses to pay for. You’re willing to risk all that for this lawsuit?”
The attorney then asked them if they had given any thought to what they would do if they got fired from the department.
“We said, ‘Well, we’ll find a job somewhere,’” Jackson recalled. “We felt that if we get fired, so be it. We were standing up for what we believed in.”
Even with the very real possibility of sacrificing not only their jobs but possibly their own safety, the officers knew that once the struggle was begun there would be no turning back. They were all in.
On May 11, 1965, the lawsuit was officially filed at the federal court in Tampa, and a group of black officers taking on the department did not sit well with some of the other white policemen.
“They were upset, they were angry,” Jackson said. “We lost friendships with some of those guys. Some of them stopped speaking to us.”
Some were more direct in their disgust, telling the black officers that they should be kicked off the force, or worse, that they never should have been police officers. They felt Jackson and the others were against them. Some white officers even went so far as to say that if Jackson and the others found themselves in trouble and calling for back up, they would simply not respond and leave them to their fate.
“We weren’t against them personally,” Jackson explained. “We were against the system.”
Yet some of the white officers, Jackson noted, were supportive even though very few were openly so for fear of retaliation or being ostracized themselves. Crawford agreed, saying “there were some good guys.”
Nearly a year after the officers put the suit in motion; they went to court on two different days, March 31 and April 1, 1966. Here they received support from fellow policeman Bob Stokes, a white officer who spoke on their behalf and testified—in front of the chief of police who was present in the courtroom—that the black officers were not being treated fairly.
Attorney Frank Peterman, Sr., who took on the intrepid lawsuit along with Sanderlin, couldn’t recall ever taking on a similar case up to that point.
“I think it was precedent-setting for the nation, to some extent,” affirmed Peterman, Sr., now 78. Despite opposition that they knew would come their way—he admitted he even received threats from the Ku Klux Klan—he believed they could win because they had faith in the judicial system. “We were dedicated to justice.”
In the end, they lost the case.
But Sanderlin wasn’t done. He urged them to appeal. The officers had bankrolled the lawsuit themselves and told him they simply didn’t have any more money. Here the attorney suggested they contact the NAACP for assistance in their plight. The organization indeed stepped up and took on the costs, and on August 1, 1968, the appeal was successful.
The court awarded them a victory.
A department unified
The result was integration in the police department, and black officers were allowed to patrol the entire city. Even lockers for black and white officers were side by side.
In November 1968, Jackson was the first black officer assigned to the police van that investigated accidents. The white officer whose job it was to train Jackson told him flat out that none of the other white officers would agree to work with him, a black man. But nonetheless, Jackson still managed to open the door that had been heretofore slammed shut to black officers.
In spring of the following year, Jackson became the city’s first black officer assigned to an all-white neighborhood in northeast St. Pete. He patrolled the area on his own and didn’t have any problems from the white residents who simply respected him as an officer of the law.
“I was firm,” he said. “I was fair.”
Jackson believes there is no doubt that the actions of the Courageous 12 helped black officers in the ensuing years reach many goals that were once thought unattainable. After the decision, black officers were patrolling neighborhoods all over the city and were in time earning promotions.
“That lawsuit paved the way for a lot of Africa-American officers,” he attested.
Peterman, Sr. believes that the suit served as a precedent for other officers to organize against racially biased systems that denied them equal opportunities.
A few years after the court decision, a group of black officers in Tampa filed their own lawsuit for discrimination.
In the late 1970s, Goliath Davis III was a young field-training officer with the SPPD. He had been mentored and trained by men from the Courageous 12 and worked his way up to the director of training.
When the department began recruiting for more officers in the early 1980s, Davis was in a perfect position to continue diversification efforts. He hired four young African Americans to join the police department: Cadets Cedric Gordon, Al White, Mike Washington and Lawanda Odom, the first black female cadet.
After 33 years of service, Gordon retired as an assistant chief of police and White retired as a sergeant on September 11, 2013. Washington later moved to another city to become a federal probation and parole officer and Odom just recently retired from SPPD.
Davis III went on to become St. Pete’s first African-American police chief in 1997. Four years later, Mayor Rick Baker appointed him deputy mayor. In 2014, Mayor Rick Kriseman appointed Anthony Holloway, the second African-American chief of police.
“The Courageous 12 did a lot for the organization, and many of today’s officers are standing on the shoulders of the ones that came before them. Those men blazed the trail for them to be accepted, and they need to appreciate that and always reach back to help others,” said Davis.
Baker once noted that through the watershed struggle it was always “us against the world, not us against them,” and Jackson agrees.
Crawford gives credit to all 15 African-American members of the force back then for what they endured.
“All the guys suffered the same things we all suffered,” Crawford attested, adding that though they didn’t participate in the suit, they persevered through the same indignities.
Crawford, who went on to work as Director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations in Miami-Dade County, is quick to give much credit to Jackson, who continues to carry the torch by giving speeches and granting interviews about the Courageous 12 and their part in the civil rights struggle.
Jackson served on the force until 1972. He is honored to be one of the Courageous 12 and to be recognized by so many officials and organizations, such as Mayor Rick Kriseman, Faith Memorial Baptist Church and Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. He is also proud to have paved the way for not only African-American police officers in St. Pete, but African-American police officers in the entire nation.
“Those police officers are now standing on our shoulders,” Jackson said, “because of what we did.”