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A fighter in sunset of life

Perkins T. Shelton, 91, was a pioneer in the city's civil rights struggle and was a "tireless freedom fighter" until his death.

Published October 22, 2003

[Times photo (2002)]
Perkins T. Shelton sits in front of a portrait of himself, used as a model for a sculpture, in October 2000. St. Petersburg City Council member Rene Flowers said Mr. Shelton always told her: "Make sure you're doing something you can live with. It may be unpopular, but make sure you can live with it."

ST. PETERSBURG - At an age when most have settled into comfortable retirement, Perkins T. Shelton wasn't ready to relinquish the fight he began so many years ago.

At 88, he was elected secretary of the NAACP in St. Petersburg. He wrote letters on behalf of the St. Petersburg Commission on Aging at 91.

"He never gave up the struggle for doing right by his people," said Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "He was a tireless freedom fighter."

Mr. Shelton died late Monday at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. He was 91.

He was described by friends and colleagues as a pioneer in the city's civil rights movement and a driving force for equality.

"I believe we lost a real soldier, a giant," said Watson Haynes, a civic activist and Mr. Shelton's personal representative. "He was not afraid to fight by himself for what he felt was right. He was relentless. He probably did more for the citizens of St. Petersburg than people who have lived here their entire lives."

Haynes, president and chief executive officer of the Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free St. Petersburg Inc., said Mr. Shelton suffered complications after minor surgery a week ago.

Mr. Shelton served as a mentor to a generation of black leaders in St. Petersburg. City Council member Rene Flowers remembers meeting Mr. Shelton before she decided to run for city office in 1999.

"When he entered a room he had a real presence," she said. "He was truly someone I looked up to and would go to for advice."

But Mr. Shelton wasn't afraid to criticize his charges publicly when he felt they had erred. In January 2002, he wrote a letter to the St. Petersburg Times chastising Flowers and others for supporting a police effort to crack down on drug dealers in black neighborhoods.

"He could stand with you or he could stand without you," Flowers said. "He always told me, "Make sure you're doing something you can live with. It may be unpopular, but make sure you can live with it."'

In the 1980s, Mr. Shelton won what many consider his most important battle: electing members of the Legislature from single-member districts. After the Florida Supreme Court approved the Legislature's reapportionment plan, which did away with the multimember districts, Mr. Shelton turned his attention to the Pinellas County Commission.

By a narrow margin on Nov. 2, 1999, voters approved the expansion of the County Commission from five to seven members: four elected from districts and three elected countywide.

"This is about good government and fair representation for all voters," said Mr. Shelton, who led the African-American Voters' Research and Education Committee.

Age discrimination also drew his fire.

In a letter to the Times in February, he argued that "one of the most dangerous issues facing our elderly is the prevalence of ageism (or age discrimination). Because of misunderstandings about aging, ageism has been creeping into the fabric of our society to the level of racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigoted "-isms."'

Mr. Shelton liked to say that he came to St. Petersburg from a political town - Chicago - where he worked with U.S. Rep. William Dawson, now deceased.

Settling in Florida, politics continued to engage Mr. Shelton. A Walter Mondale delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, he was a Democratic precinct committeeman for more than two decades.

He frequently urged black people to begin to work within a national party system.

"Black people say they won't come out to Democratic Party meetings because they don't want to be around racists," Mr. Shelton, a founding member of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida, said in 1994.

"Well, I say get over in there with the racists. That's where you belong. Keep them honest!"

Known for his strong views on the black family, he frequently wrote and spoke on the subject.

Like a preacher, he urged mothers and fathers to encourage their children to go to college or to acquire a special skill.

"You have to have some kind of document nowadays to show that you are trained to do some kind of work," he said in 1994. "Without that, you're crippled."

A life member of the NAACP, he stepped away from the local branch in 1990. But in 2000 he became active again, at the urging of Gwen Reese, a former co-chairwoman of the Community Alliance who wanted to re-energize the NAACP.

Rouson, who ran for president of the NAACP that year, said Mr. Shelton was one of the few who could bridge the gap between the divergent styles of the NAACP and the Uhuru Movement.

Mr. Shelton supported Omali Yeshitela, leader of the Uhurus, in his 2000 bid for mayor and occasionally attended the group's meetings.

"I was always impressed by his deep and profound commitment to freedom," Yeshitela said of Mr. Shelton. "He wasn't someone who had just a casual relationship to the struggle. It was a deep and philosophically supported commitment to the struggle."

In 1988, he received a Senior Hall of Fame Award from the city of St. Petersburg in recognition of his contributions to the city's quality of life. His name, along with other winners, was engraved on a plaque at the Office on Aging at the Sunshine Center.

Lou Brown, chairman of the Coalition of African-American Leadership, called Mr. Shelton a warrior and a role model.

"The thing that stood out most about Perkins is that he was always learning," Brown said. "He was in his 90s, but he was always taking classes. He was constantly striving to improve. His eyes would just sparkle when he would talk."

Mr. Shelton had served on the Environmental Development Commission, Housing Authority and Fair Housing Board and had been a chairman of the legislative committee of the St. Petersburg Council on Human Relations. He wrote an occasional column for the St. Petersburg Times.

He had been employed by Gulfcoast Legal Services, specializing in elder law. He was a graduate of Calumet College, Chicago, where he worked as a supervisor in the railway post office. Locally, he was a licensed real estate agent and a founder of Impressions Associated Public Relations and Promotions.

Survivors include two stepsons, Donald and Eugene Griffith, Cincinnati; a granddaughter, April Griffith, Columbus, Ohio; and his companion, Nicki Bauwens, St. Petersburg.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by McRae Funeral Home.

- Times staff writers Jon Wilson and Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report. Information from Times files was used.

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