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Last surviving member of Courageous 12: ‘We were the Jackie Robinson of police integration’

Megan Holmes

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Leon Jackson, last surviving member of The Courageous 12, in front of the St. Petersburg Police Department's plaque.

The last surviving member of St. Petersburg Police Department’s famous Courageous 12 joined St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in a ceremony honoring the 12 African American police officers who sued the City of St. Petersburg to serve the entire city, more than over 50 years ago.

Dozens gathered Tuesday morning to pay tribute to the Courageous 12 and to listen to Leon Jackson’s story, as the 78-year old impressed the importance of telling the story of the Courageous 12 to new police officers and the wider community. The morning culminated in the dedication of a plaque in the lobby of the new St. Petersburg Police Department, honoring the 12 officers.

The Courageous 12: Officers Baker, Holland, Crawford, Nero, King, Styles, Lewis, Jackson, Wooten, Killen, DeLoach and Keys

In 1965, 12 of the 15 black officers in the St. Pete Police Department filed a lawsuit to allow black police officers to patrol the entire city and all of its residents. At the time, black officers could only patrol certain areas: Zone 13 – between 5th Ave South and 18th Ave S and 9th St to 34th St; and Methodist Town – 2nd Ave N to 4th Ave N and 16th St. N to 9th St. N.

“When I first came on the police department,” Jackson explained, “African American police officers could not work at the front desk, we were never assigned any desk job inside the police station. We were always assigned to work in the so-called ‘colored’ neighborhoods of the city only, we could not investigate white citizens. We could not arrest whites during that time.

“Promotion was nonexistent for African American police officers. We could not take the sergeant’s exam for promotion. There was one African American sergeant and his authority was limited,” Jackson continued. “He could only supervise the African American police officers, he could not supervise the white police officers. White sergeants had unlimited authority, they could supervise all police officers.

“What we went through with filing that lawsuit, I would never wish that on anyone. But that lawsuit paved the way not only for St. Petersburg’s African American police officers, but it paved the way for African American law enforcement in the entire nation. We were the Jackie Robinson of police integration.”

The lawsuit came at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King marched from Selma to Montgomery. And while they were initially ruled against in court, the Courageous 12 eventually won their lawsuit when the Court of Appeals took their side in 1968, setting the stage for equal treatment throughout St. Petersburg, the state of Florida and the nation.

“Some may assume that this was just one of many civil rights developments that occurred in the 1960s,” said Kriseman. “While the actions of the Courageous 12 followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act [of 1964], let’s put what they did and when they did it into perspective.”

“Their suit came two years before our local newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, ended publication of the ‘Negro News Pages,'” Kriseman continued. “Three years before our own sanitation strike here in St. Pete, six years before court-ordered busing formally ended segregation of our schools. What they did and when they did it was not easy. It was in a word – courageous.”

The plaque, installed next to doorway of the department’s lobby, represents the doors opened to minority police officers thanks to the Courageous 12, Holloway said. The St. Petersburg Police Department has also mandated that anyone taking the St. Petersburg Police Department Lieutenant Exam must read the court ruling for the Courageous 12. The dedication of the plaque to the Courageous 12 marks the first time that the City of St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Police Department has permanently honored the histiric officers.

Last month, the city’s public arts commission also set aside $100,000 to create a larger piece of art to honor the Courageous 12. Members of community have pledged to raise $200,000 in additional monies to contribute to the piece.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Robert Mandel

    October 29, 2019at4:18 pm

    Thank you for your article shining a light on what St Petersburg was 55 years ago and how far it has advanced…..with miles and miles to go…

  2. Avatar

    Michele Walker

    October 29, 2019at4:45 pm

    This is an important piece of history that I didn’t know about until this article. Articles like this promote inclusion by educating all about our collective past, present, and future.

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