During this weekend’s opening reception of their updated exhibition, “Beaches, Benches, and Boycotts: The Civil Rights Movement in Tampa Bay,” the Florida Holocaust Museum will be honoring the last surviving member of St. Petersburg’s “Courageous 12,” Leon Jackson, with the Upstander Award.
According to Erin Blankenship, curator of exhibitions and collections at the museum, an upstander is “someone who stands up, who speaks out against injustice.”
Blankenship believes that during the civil rights movement “The Courageous 12,” who were among St. Petersburg’s first black police officers, did just that.
On May 11, 1965, Leon Jackson and his fellow black officers filed a lawsuit against the city, citing discrimination within the police department and asking for integration.
Prior to winning the case in August of 1968, black police officers were not able to work in white neighborhoods, could only arrest black citizens, and had separate water fountains, lockers, and cars from the rest of the department.
“This lawsuit paved the way for African Americans to be promoted up through the ranks,” Jackson said. “Whereas in 1965, when we, ‘The Courageous 12,’ filed the lawsuit, we could not even take the sergeant exam to go up through the ranks.”
According to Blankenship, Jackson and his fellow officers were among the first black people to be hired by the city for a position of authority.
“These gentlemen were leaders in their community. I've heard from a number of community members from St. Petersburg that it meant a lot to the community, having black officers, because they were really pioneers,” Blankenship said.
She says that the exhibition takes the civil rights movement, which is normally identified with places like Birmingham and Montgomery, and makes it local.
“We do use a lot of community members’ voices, and… talk about the richness of the African American communities in Tampa Bay,” Blankenship said. “It was very important to me to be able to talk to community members and get their input to have their voices heard.”
Jackson is proud to have his story included in the exhibition and to be receiving the Upstander Award.
“It's very, very important to let it be known what we 12 African Americans did for the city of St. Petersburg to bridge the gap of racism that existed at the St. Petersburg police department,” Jackson said.
The opening reception will include a panel discussion with prominent people in Tampa Bay’s black community. While Saturday’s event is sold out, the exhibition runs from Sunday through March 1, 2020 at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. For address and exhibition hours, visit their website.