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Activist has spent a lifetime speaking out

More than 30 years of retirement have not silenced Perkins T. Shelton's political voice _ or his local activism.

This is vintage Perkins T. Shelton:

He has a reporter in his living room and the two are talking politics, jawing about a get-out-the-vote drive before last November's election.

Shelton is wondering why in the world the downtown drive drew no newspaper coverage.

"We rallied at Williams Park and we marched. One hundred people. Music. We marched to The Saints . . . all the way to the supervisor of elections office."

Every word a dart, glasses bouncing on his face, Shelton springs from the couch and begins to stalk, his slender 6 feet looming over the cowed visitor, whom he pokes in the shoulder as a kind of punctuation.

"Right in the shadow of your building, and no one covered it! Not a living soul was there!"

The better part of a century's passion is talking, vigorously as usual.

Reared amid Chicago's old-time ward power-brokering, then spending a few years as a railroad sleeping car porter when the brotherhood was becoming a civil rights wellspring, Shelton has spent a lifetime as a political warrior.

Just over a week ago, he turned 89. Women did not yet have the vote when he was born.

But some things don't change.

A few weeks ago, Shelton was elected secretary on a new slate of NAACP officers promising to rejuvenate the organization. He is a recently appointed commissioner to the city's Office an Aging. And he is looking forward to the city's upcoming mayoral election.

His friends say it's not likely Shelton ever would contemplate a life of leisure, though he has been retired from the career world for more than 30 years. Eventually, he became supervisor of a railroad post office unit.

Shelton, who grew interested in politics when African-Americans still gravitated toward the Republican Party, doesn't like to give up on anything, friends say.

"Perkins would always be the one to light the match if we didn't have passion," said Watson Haynes, a longtime friend who was one of several young activists Shelton helped inspire more than a generation ago.

Shelton is old enough to recall the infamous 1919 Chicago race riot that left 38 dead and came to be considered the worst of about 25 conflagrations nationwide during a post-World War I summer of racial tension.

"We could hear the guns firing. My mother was scared to death," said Shelton, who grew up on Wabash Avenue.

From Civil War history

to Chicago's streets

His sense of history reaches back to Civil War days in Virginia, where both his grandfathers served in the Union army. Though a midwesterner, Shelton's speech still carries a hint of the Old Dominion State's gliding diphthong that turns words such as "out" into "aout."

Joe Perkins and Tom Shelton took part in the 1864 Battle of Trevilians, said to be the Civil War's bloodiest cavalry fight. Little more than a half-century later, their grandson and his friends carried on another kind of struggle. They put rocks in their pockets to venture through an Irish neighborhood on the way to a Lake Michigan beach 16 blocks away.

Chicago racism, said Shelton, was a little different than, say, St. Petersburg's, where separation of the races was strictly enforced. In Chicago, "You could go anywhere if you wanted to take a chance," Shelton said.

"I guess it was accepted as a way of life in those days," he said. "You had to round up five or six or seven kids to make the walk. Any less, there would be trouble. Sometimes we'd be challenged, sometimes we'd have to run."

And sometimes there would be rock fights, he said, "but nobody ever got hit."

Since then, in one way or another, Shelton has persevered in the battle for equal rights and respect.

Regulations limited Shelton's political activity during his railroad career.

But nothing held him back when he and his wife Margaret retired to St. Petersburg in 1969.

Local activism,

widespread influence

It was a dynamic time here, with the civil rights movement gaining momentum and school desegregation in its infancy. "I hit town when all these changes were taking place, and somehow I got swept up right in the middle of it," Shelton said.

And he missed few corners of the political landscape. He served on the Community Alliance, the Fair Housing Board and the St. Petersburg Housing Authority.

He worked voter registration projects, wrote a column for the city's afternoon newspaper, became director of branch affairs for the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter and was a delegate to Democratic national conventions in 1984, 1992 and 1996.

He has looked out for the welfare of black students, appearing before the School Board or speaking with administrators.

"There may have been occasions when we disagreed," said School Superintendent Howard Hinesley. "But he always had a calm demeanor and was very professional. I always had respect for the way he approached the issues."

Shelton's energy is far-reaching. More than 20 years ago, for example, he argued for repeal of the city's anti-loitering law, which African-Americans had criticized as a tool for selective police enforcement.

He also took on the larger issue of limited black representation in the Legislature and on the Pinellas County Commission.

"He's clearly helping people with individual problems," said Susan Glickman, who was a delegate with Shelton to the 1996 Democratic convention. "At the same time, he's often working in very high political circles that can get things done on a global scale. I think he has that fabulous ability to play in both places."

Participation continues

on local political scene

Despite Shelton's intention to relax and maybe work on an autobiography, the old bugles call. On Monday _ Jan. 1, Emancipation Day _ he takes office as the new NAACP secretary.

Shelton is optimistic that new energy will take over what some believe has become a punchless organization.

"I see some movement," Shelton said. "We're going to try to activate youth branches and get involved in whatever the community decides the issues are. We are going to become an activist organization."

And then there's the St. Petersburg mayor's race, soon to heat up.

Shelton said he will support Omali Yeshitela, the leader of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement who is thinking about running.

"He'll bring a whole new direction as to what the city is, a new direction to tackle the problems we have, have never done before, and are afraid to do," Shelton said. "There will be issues on the table that no one else would bring up."

It is an irony that David Fischer's decision not to seek another term opened the door for Shelton's support of Yeshitela. "I liked Mayor Fischer. I had a personal regard for him and the things he has done," Shelton said.

But Yeshitela was among the first civil rights activists Shelton met after moving to St. Petersburg. It was just three years after the younger man had torn down an offensive mural at City Hall.

"I've been a supporter (of Yeshitela), though I'm not a card-carrying Uhuru," Shelton said.

Shelton became a friend of a few younger activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"I met (Yeshitela), Mayjor Walker and Watson Haynes, and we became kind of a group," Shelton said. "I've admired those people. So I'm leaning very much toward (Yeshitela)."

His proudest fight: for

single-member districts

Walker now is a pastor and Haynes, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 1979 and 1989, is director of Pinellas Bridge, a drug treatment center.

Haynes recalls Shelton's part in forging single-member legislative districts, a political geography that has improved African-American representation among state lawmakers.

The first important battleground was a state Democratic convention in the early 1980s. Haynes, Shelton and Gregory Duckett, another ally, called a strategy meeting to win support for statewide single-member districts.

At the time, legislators were elected from large, multi-member districts. For example, voters in south Pinellas County would cast votes for five House members. The system worked against black representation because white voters typically voted against black candidates.

"We confronted (state party chairman) Charles Whitehead," Haynes said. "(We said) no single-member districts, no black vote."

In 1982, the Florida Supreme Court approved the Legislature's reapportionment plan, which did away with the multi-member districts.

In Shelton's view, it was a signature victory. He still loves to recall the campaign.

"Whitehead promised to bring it up (on the convention floor). We got our foot in the door and that was the beginning of single-member districts in Florida," he said.

Shelton leaps to his feet at the recollection.

"That was the beginning of it, and don't let anyone tell you any different. If they do, damn it, they'll have to talk to me! That was the thing I'm most proud of."

Shelton continued the campaign locally. Single-member districts eventually were voted in for the Pinellas County Commission.

"Perkins will hold onto an issue until there's a resolution," Haynes said.

Not surprisingly, Shelton was part of the African-American Voter Research and Education Committee that last year boosted single-member commission districts to victory in a referendum decided by 23 votes.

Meanwhile, Shelton has found time to champion or oppose other causes. He most recently spoke against a statue proposed to honor pioneer newspaper editor Lew B. Brown for what some considered his racist philosophy. Eventually, a statue of a newsboy selling the Evening Independent was placed in front of the city's Museum of History. Shelton attended the unveiling.

Writing autobiography

remains a temptation

Shelton lives on a peaceful street fronting Lake Maggiore. His first wife died in 1984; Inez, his second wife, died in May. It would be easy for him simply to take life easy, and think about nothing more than keeping up his e-mail correspondence with a granddaughter.

"Work on my book. Get in touch with my own mortality," he said.

But while issues remain to be debated in his adopted community?

"He's never been about his own agenda," Haynes said. "It was always the community, always somebody else."

The jobs he has taken on suggests there will be no withdrawal.

Even so, the book remains a tempting project.

He even has a title in mind: Wabash Avenue.

Said Shelton: "The life and times of an octogenarian raised in the Chicago ghetto."