Honoring Courageous 12 Who Fought for Rights

February is designated nationally as African American/Black History Month. During this time, the country acknowledges, commemorates and celebrates the contributions of Black people that have made our society and the world a better place.

In recognition of this month of celebration, I will provide brief articles about the contributions of African Americans to the field of criminal justice.

I will attempt to highlight the achievements, acts of bravery, selflessness and courage exhibited by some African Americans as law enforcement professionals and illustrate how their examples have opened the gates of inclusion and opportunity for all.

The Courageous 12
The Courageous 12

I want to start from a local perspective and talk about a group of 12 Black police officers who worked for the city of St. Petersburg Police Department in the 1960’s. They are known as The Courageous 12.

In the 60’s, the St. Petersburg Police Department practiced the policies and beliefs of the south: separate and not equal. Black police were not able to patrol or answer calls in “white” areas of the city. They were not allowed to write traffic tickets to white motorists or arrest white citizens for violations of the law.

Black Police were not able to patrol ‘white areas’ of the city. They were not allowed to answer calls in ‘white areas’. Not allowed to write traffic tickets to white motorist or make arrest of white citizens taken into custody for violations of the law. Black officers worked walking beats in the “black” areas of the city. They were often in teams in two, but sometimes worked alone.   

White police officers were allowed to work all areas of the city, respond to any calls, drive department police cars to calls, write any motorist a traffic ticket and arrests any citizen suspected of committing a crime – regardless of race.

A group of black officers decided to fight these unjust policies.

The original group was larger than 12. Their fight started by meeting with the police chief, Harold Smith, until he refused to meet with them anymore. Nothing was changing, and the group was confronted with the decision to continue to be mistreated or fight.

One officer, Freddie Crawford, suggested that the group sue the city. After discussion, it was decided to put to the decision to a vote. Several members of group withdrew, but the remaining group voted unanimously to sue. They came to be known as The Courageous 12. They were: Leon Jackson, Adam Baker, Freddie Crawford, Raymond DeLoach, Charles Holland, Robert Keys, Primus Killen, James King, Johnnie B. Lewis, Horace Nero, Jerry Styles and Nathaniel Wooten.

The group of men committed to this action with full knowledge that they put themselves, their families, their livelihoods and reputations at stake.

The group contacted a local lawyer named James Sanderlin to handle the suit. He warned them of the dangerous course they were embarking upon and of the very real consequences. They proceeded with the suit.

On May 11, 1965, they officially filed the lawsuit in Federal Court in Tampa. This action did not sit well with some white officers at the department. Many would not talk to them, some refused to work with them, and others were more overt in their dissatisfaction with the group’s actions, going as far as to say that they would not respond to black officers in distress while on patrol. Some went as far to call them racial epithets to their face and spray paint the same on their lockers. For these black officers, it was not a personal attack against white police officers. It was their fight to be treated and accepted as “full” police by the department and the community they took oaths to serve and protect. In their limited and marginalized capacity, they were not viewed as “full” police officers.  

The original suit was lost in court. The lawsuit was re-submitted upon appeal after the group attained the assistance of NAACP. On August 1, 1968, the appeal was successful and the lawsuit was upheld. The result was the full integration and inclusion of Black officers in the department, including the ability to be promoted and transferred to various departments within the agency.

The action of these 12 men had a nationwide impact. Black police officers across the country followed the same path and won lawsuits granting them the ability to be “full” police officers.

These actions have been transformative with the St. Petersburg Police Department. In fact, the department is currently under leadership of its second black police chief, Anthony Holloway.

The actions of the Courageous 12 have mostly been forgotten or pushed aside by the city’s younger generations. Their actions have been revisited with the opening of the new St. Petersburg Police Station and the ongoing debate of the establishment of a monument befitting these men.

I have had the honor of meeting six of these men. But at the time, I had no idea of how their actions enabled me to have 25-year career in law enforcement.

Leon Jackson is lone surviving member of the 12. His wish is that the actions of Courageous 12 never be forgotten.

In this month of celebration and remembrance, let us not forget the actions of 12 courageous men who impacted countless numbers of professional law enforcement officers across this country and beyond.

Information for the article was taken from the article, Faces of Courage: The Courageous 12 by Frank Drouzas, a St. Petetsburg Times staff writer.

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