The Courageous 12

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BY RONDA BURNS
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER

Former St. Petersburg Police Officer Leon Jackson describes his first day of walking the beat of Zone 13, the Black community, the only area where Black police officers were allowed to police, as both exciting and disappointing.

A Black man was in the area and had committed a crime. Jackson was there but was not allowed to make the arrest. He was only allowed to apprehend and detain the assailant.

His distinct responsibility was to call his White counterparts to make the arrest. If he had made the arrest, he would have been reprimanded, demoted, or perhaps arrested himself. He did not push the envelope.

Jackson, 79, is the sole survivor of St. Petersburg’s Courageous 12. They were African- American police officers who sued the City of St. Petersburg in 1965 seeking relief from the Plessy decision of 1896, which established separate but equal as the law of the land. They sued for the right to enforce the law that was equal to the White police officers in spite of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Chronicling history

Jackson has written a book that chronicles the events that occurred that led to the lawsuit and profiles the officers who put their jobs on the line.

The book’s title, “Urban Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of St. Petersburg’s Courageous Twelve,’’ captures the essence of how the group of officers evolved through the law enforcement system and the lawsuit that gave them equal rights.

His inspiration for writing the book was to let the public know what the Black officers did to make the police department fair and work practices equal for African-Americans.

“They drove hand-me down vehicles and showered in separate areas. The most insulting thing was being referred to as a half-cop,’’ Jackson said.

The 12 could only police Pepper Town, the city’s oldest Black neighborhood; the Gas Plant Area, another Black section which is now home to the Tampa Bay Rays stadium; Methodist Town, labeled as the city’s worst slum by the newspaper; and 22nd Street, considered a main street that housed many Black businesses and professional offices.

The Black officers could not make any arrests but only wait until a White officer showed up so that he could officially do the arrest.

All the Black officers could do was detain the person who broke the law.

They met with police brass to make changes, but nothing ever came out of the meetings, Jackson recounted.

The 12 decided to sue.

Filing suit

James B. Sanderlin, a 31-year-old Boston University law graduate, was interested in taking the case since he had just gone to court the year before to end school segregation in Pinellas County. Sanderlin warned them that the lawsuit could bring repercussions.

Adam Baker stood up and said, “Use my name first on the suit. I don’t care what they do. They can go ahead and fire me.”

The 1968 court decision in the lawsuit of the Courageous 12 – Adam Baker vs. The City of St. Petersburg – changed working conditions, and promotional and employment opportunities in the City of St. Petersburg, and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, the state of Florida and the nation.

Officers Baker, Freddie Lee Crawford, Raymond DeLoach, Charles Holland, Jackson, Robert Keys, Primus Killen, Jimmie King, Johnnie B. Lewis, Horace Nero, Jerry Styles and Nathaniel Wooten were coined the Courageous 12.

They lost the case in 1966, and Sanderlin contacted the NAACP, who agreed to file an appeal. In 1968, the Courageous 12 won the appeal.

“We were like the African-American soldiers serving the American Western campaigns. Buffalo Soldier was the name that Native Americans called them. Black officers working in urban communities of America are Buffalo Soldiers who owe a tremendous debt to the Courageous 12,’’ Jackson said.

According to Jackson, Baker was a 1956 graduate of Gibbs High School. He played football at the all-Black high school. He was also named the best dressed male student. Baker was appointed to the police force in 1959.

Former St. Petersburg Police Officer Leon Jackson stands in front of a tribute to the Courageous 12 at the police department. The officers’ 1968 legal victory opened the door for minorities to have equal rights to their White counterparts and the opportunity to be promoted through the ranks in law enforcement agencies.

Humble beginnings

Jackson was one of six children. He was born in McIntosh, Florida, and moved to St. Petersburg when he was 13 years old. He worked at the Driftwood Cafeteria although he was not allowed to sit and eat there. Jackson was at the Driftwood when he thought about a career in law enforcement.

His friend, Jimmy King, also a member of the Courageous 12, suggested that law enforcement may be a good change for him. Jackson was recruited by African-American police officers King and Freddie Lee Crawford. He says after much convincing, they talked him into applying and becoming a police officer.

He almost did not make it.

“One requirement was that you had to measure five feet eight inches tall and I measured a fraction less,’’ he recalled.

The woman that measured him told him to come back the next morning. She said that people often measure taller in early hours of the day. He did just that and measured a full five feet eight inches the next day.

He joined the force in October 1963. Jackson credits then Vice Mayor Northey Cox with eventually making sure that he was hired on the force. He also gives credit to Bill Lattimore, a dapper man about town who knew both Blacks and Whites.

Lattimore was the person who called the police chief about Jackson’s application. It appears that they only wanted to hire local Black men. According to Jackson, if the applicant was from up North, he did not have a chance of being hired.

Police station tribute

Jackson now spends his days speaking to various groups and youth about the Courageous 12, especially during Black History Month. He was the grand marshal for the 2020 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade in St. Petersburg.

Last fall, the Courageous 12 were honored with a ceremony at the city’s new police headquarters. A plaque was unveiled honoring the 12.

Artist Ya La’Ford has been commissioned to design an iron monument that will be erected in front of the old police station.

Nowadays, Jackson becomes frustrated when he hears about all of the Blacks who have died at the hands of police officers.

“Police departments need to enforce the sensitivity training programs that are in place and explore other methods of making the police more accountable for their actions,’’ he remarked.

Additionally, he laments, “You can’t train the attitude, therefore, there must be consequences such as prosecutions if the training is ignored.’’

Spreading the word

Jackson hopes the impact of his book will enlighten future generations in St. Petersburg and all over the nation.

“The lawsuit personally paved the way for African-Americans to pursue and get jobs in law enforcement. Just like the Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit paved the way for equal rights to education, Adam Baker et al vs. the City of St. Petersburg made a pathway for African-Americans and police officers of color across the nation,’’ he added.

The book, “Urban Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of St. Petersburg’s Courageous Twelve” by Leon Jackson can be purchased by contacting Jackson at Leonjackson591@gmail.com

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