Those Who Follow ‘Stand on the Shoulders of the Courageous 12’
By Jon Wilson, Consulting Editor, Tampa Bay Reporter
The Courageous 12 were African American officers in the St. Petersburg Police Department who sued the city in the 1960s to get equal treatment. Freddie Lee Crawford, one of the two last surviving members of the Courageous 12, died Friday.
ST. PETERSBURG – Pioneering police officer Freddie Lee Crawford died Friday (May 17, 2019) at age 81, but he leaves a proud legacy.
Mr. Crawford’s role in ending segregation in the St. Petersburg Police Department will be featured in a forthcoming book, tentatively titled Urban Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of St. Petersburg’s Courageous 12.
Mr. Crawford was one of two surviving members of the Courageous 12, a group of black officers who sued their employer – the city of St. Petersburg – for the right to be treated the same as white officers.
Leon Jackson is writing the book. He is the last of the Courageous 12, or as some have called the group, the Daring Dozen. By filing the landmark suit, they put their jobs in jeopardy.
Jackson is writing the book because he believes in the suit’s importance in the Civil Rights Movement. He said it opened the door to similar legal challenges by black employees elsewhere in Florida and in the nation, and that it paved the way for future African American police officers in St. Petersburg.
“It was Freddie Crawford’s idea,” Jackson told Aljazeera’s America Tonight in 2015. “I was the one who said [the police chief] was not going to do anything. Then, Freddie Crawford got angry. And I’m cleaning it up, but, Freddie said, ‘Sue ‘em.’”
Mr. Crawford is credited for being the first to encourage the suit in 1965 after high-ranking police officials ignored black officers’ pleas for equal treatment. The suit, thought to be the first such legal action in the nation, failed in its first federal court appearance. But in 1968 the officers won in an appeals court.
The victory put an end to such archaic practices as separate locker areas and “colored only” drinking fountains in the police station – but it also resulted in much wider change.
For the first time, black officers would be able to patrol white neighborhoods and arrest white people. Previously, they could only patrol in African American neighborhoods and could only detain white suspects; a white officer had to be summoned to make the actual arrest.
The limitations resulted in a frequently heard aspersion the black officers detested: “You’re only half a cop.”
The officers’ successful suit was one of several hard-won civil rights victories in St. Petersburg during the 1960s. The decade saw lunch counters and movie theaters desegregated, Gibbs High School’s entry into the previously all white Florida High School Athletics Association, the desegregation of downtown’s Spa Beach and swimming pool, the beginnings of public school desegregation and the election of the first African American to the St. Petersburg City Council. This year is the 50th anniversary of C. Bette Wimbish’s election victory.
High-ranking black officers a generation later often say that they stand on the shoulders of the Courageous 12.
Mr. Crawford was born in Americus, GA, where four generations of his family had worked in the fields. His parents earned $1.25 for every 100 pounds of cotton they picked. The family moved to St. Petersburg when Mr. Crawford was 6. He had a paper route as a youngster, and was the first black paper boy to sell on the north side, often on the corner of 16th Street N and Fifth Avenue.The straight-A student graduated from Gibbs Junior College, later earning an education degree from the University of South Florida. He worked a while as an assembly line technician at General Electric.
As a police officer, Mr. Crawford preferred not to carry a nightstick or chemical mace, preferring to solve problems by talking “eyeball to eyeball” with people. He typically didn’t carry a gun off duty, though police regulations required him to do so.
Mr. Crawford served about nine years on the police department. He resigned and took a job as manager of job development and training for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
During an interview for Jackson’s book about two years ago, Mr. Crawford told how the Negro National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, was an inspiration for him. One night on the midnight shift, he answered a burglary call with fellow officer Charles Holland. As Holland approached the house, he could hear Holland humming the song.
“It was memorable. It was comforting,” Mr. Crawford said. He said the song’s last verse was always special to him:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Everyday we lit
Shadowed beneath thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.”
Some information in this article came from the manuscript by Leon Jackson.
Photo of the Courageous 12 courtesy of the St. Petersburg Police Department.
St. Petersburg Police | Courageous 12 | Freddie Lee Crawford | Leon Jackson | Civil Rights | Tampabay News
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