ST. PETERSBURG — There were too many plaintiffs to fit on one line.
That is what the lawyer that night in 1965 told his clients, a dozen black police officers who had been meeting in one another’s living rooms for a year and a half.
If these officers were going to file their discrimination lawsuit, one of them needed to be the face of it, lawyer James B. Sanderlin said.
Adam Baker stood up.
“Adam came up front and said, ‘Hey, put my name on it,’ said Leon Jackson, one of the plaintiffs in Adam Baker vs. the City of St. Petersburg. He was a leader. A first-class leader.”
Mr. Baker, who set in motion one of the most important civil rights cases in this city’s history, died Feb. 22 in Rochester, N.Y., a few months before the 50th anniversary of the lawsuit. He was 78.
The plaintiffs, known from then on as the “Courageous 12,” toppled the first domino toward ending segregation, forcing the police department to increase opportunities for its African-American officers.
Of that group, only Jackson, 74, and Freddie Lee Crawford, 77, survive.
“He was truly a man of conviction, and fearless in terms of standing up for what he believed in,” said Goliath Davis, 63, the city’s first African-American police chief and a former deputy mayor.
Mr. Baker said he and his colleagues were not thinking about ideals or improving society.
“We were not looking for a future thing, to take this big step for mankind,” Baker told the Times in a previously unpublished 2013 interview. “Anger fueled it. ‘That’s the way it is’ don’t fly. If it’s wrong, if it’s unfair, I ain’t accepting it.”
Mr. Baker and the other black officers patrolled Zone 13, a gerrymandered district comprised of three predominantly African-American areas. They walked four deep, two to each sidewalk along 22nd Street S on weekend nights, often fighting with and disarming residents who likened them to slave overseers.
“We couldn’t get out of that bowl,” Mr. Baker said in 2013. “We were captured in Zone 13.”
Black officers were not reassigned — say, to work traffic crashes or in any area other zone — and were rarely promoted. They drove C-cars (for “colored”), and were allowed to detain white suspects but not arrest them.
The officers tried to work within the system. A group of them met twice with Chief Harold Smith, who told them he would look into it. When Smith refused to meet a third time, 12 of the department’s 15 black officers joined together in a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination.
“We decided there was no way in hell they could fire all 12 of us,” Mr. Baker said in the interview.
There were repercussions. White officers, who were not the object of the suit, still took it personally.
“There was some smart stuff said,” Jackson said. “The people who used to talk to you or speak to you, they kind of stopped talking to you or speaking to you.”
Sometimes the pushback was less subtle. According to Mr. Baker, after the morning readout of duties, a white officer told the cops who were suing, “Something could happen to you guys and nobody could back you up.”
A new wave of young officers challenged the 12 directly, telling Mr. Baker that he and the others could “kiss our white a——.”
They socialized mostly with one another, playing poker and having a few drinks. They quarreled among themselves, then set it aside to watch one another’s backs on the job.
“If you hit one, you have to hit us all,” Jackson said.
Adam Baker was born in St. Petersburg in 1936. He grew up in a shotgun shack with cracks big enough to see through, in a neighborhood called “Pepper Town” along Fourth Avenue S. Mr. Baker played football and basketball at Gibbs High School. He served in the Marine Corps, and then joined the St. Petersburg police in 1959. He married Shirley Edwards in 1955.
In 1966, a judge dismissed the officers’ lawsuit against the city. The men had paid for it themselves and could not afford to appeal the decision. The NAACP stepped in, and in 1968 a judge ruled in the group’s favor.
“They deserve only what they seek — equality,” the judge wrote in his decision.
Mr. Baker left the force shortly thereafter and moved to Rochester, N.Y. For the next 30 years he worked for Eastman Kodak, earning a sociology degree at Rochester University while working as a security guard.
“He wanted to get an insight into the way people think,” said Connie BeCoats, his daughter.
The degree helped him advance to the human resources department, where his opinion was often sought on diversity issues. In a conversation with Jackson not long ago, Mr. Baker said he was hoping to commission a T-shirt commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Courageous 12 lawsuit that bears his name.
“It was always us against the world,” Mr. Baker said in 2013, “not us against them.”
Researcher Caryn Barid contributed to this report. Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.
Biography – Adam Baker
Born: May 4, 1936 | Died: Feb. 22, 2015
Survivors: wife, Shirley; daughter, Connie BeCoats; son, Michael Baker; 10 grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.