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Hometown Hero: Pinellas rights activist wins award

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:04 AM

There's Leon Russell the singer, and then there's Leon Russell the human rights activist.

About the only thing they have in common is their names.

"He's older than I am, and he's got the hair. I couldn't compete with that," says the activist, chuckling.

Today – which marks the annual observance of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday – Russell, 63, will be honored with the Robert W. Saunders Award for his decades-long contributions locally and nationally in promoting equality and justice. It takes place at 4:30 p.m. at the MLK Interfaith Celebration at Mount Calvary Seventh Day Adventist Church in Tampa.

What makes the award even more special is that Russell knew Saunders, a Tampa native whose work with the NAACP and the U.S. Office of Equal Opportunity made him a local legend. Though separated by about 30 years, the two men's paths crossed frequently. Saunders died in 2003.

"To get an award in his name, it's overwhelming," Russell says. "All the work and history of what Bob accomplished, no one could match. It's humbling to be in his company."

H. Roy Kaplan, a University of South Florida adjunct professor who serves on the award's nominating committee, says selecting this recipient was an easy decision.

"He exemplifies everything Saunders stood for," Kaplan says. "Leon is fair, he's open-minded, he's approachable. He's worked in the trenches steadily and he got things done."

Russell is well known on both sides of Tampa Bay. A year ago, he retired from Pinellas County's Office of Human Rights – a post he held for 35 years. He's actively involved in both the Pinellas and Hillsborough chapters of the NAACP, and he also serves as vice chairman of the organization's national board of directors.

For the last 18 years, Russell has made his home in Seminole Heights. The daily 35-mile roundtrip commute to work didn't faze him at all.

"This is my oasis," he says. "Sometimes if you live and work in the same community, it becomes a 24/7 job. Living here gave me a little personal space."

He got a dose of injustice early in life.

Russell, the eldest of five boys, will never forget the October night 50 years ago when an aunt came to the family home and delivered the worst news possible.

His mother and stepfather were out on a date when their car slid off the road and slammed into a tree. They died at the scene.

Assorted aunts and uncles raised the siblings, making sure they stayed together as a unit. To this day, two of his surviving brothers still live nearby. A third is in the Marines in Texas.

They grew up in Pulaski, Va., a mountainous region in the New River Valley west of Roanoke. Russell attended the segregated grade school and was given the choice by his relatives to attend either the recently integrated high school or the all-black school nearly 40 miles away.

For his freshman year, he made the drive. "Then I realized it wasn't a good use of time to be driving that far just because I was uncertain," he recalls. When he enrolled in Pulaski High as a sophomore, he was one of 10 blacks in his class of 223 students. Of the school's 1,200 kids, maybe 70 were African-American.

The Civil Rights Act had recently passed, so "people were trying hard" to deal with it, even if they were reluctant about it deep down. Russell experienced that firsthand when he joined the high-school band as a clarinet player. When the group traveled to towns that had a reputation as being racist, his fellow band mates would cluster around him and the other two black members in a protective circle.

"They made it clear that no one could mess with us," he says.

In the spring of 1968, his senior year, Russell had his first encounter with the organization that would become an integral part of his life. After King was assassinated, the black students decided to stay home on the day of the civil rights leader's funeral, despite the principal's threat to suspend them. The NAACP stepped in as a mediator, and the students were dismissed that day without penalty.

His aunt worked in a local yarn factory that offered college scholarships. Russell applied and, to his surprise, got a four-year ride to East Tennessee State University. The only stipulation was that he work summers in the factory.

It was grueling work in a building that got as hot as 120 degrees. The constant whirling of the machines, the endless task of removing bobbins and putting them in massive dryers, actually proved to be inspiring for Russell.

"Inspiring in that I was determined to finish college and not have to work in a factory the rest of my life," he says.

His first post-college job was with the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, where he was in charge of helping develop equal employment programs. This was a new era for that type of work, and Russell embraced it with enthusiasm. He also began his long association with the NAACP, launching some 16 branches in four years.

When he took the job as an affirmative action officer with Pinellas County a few years later – which later morphed into his role as director of the Office of Human Rights – Russell had no idea he would be in for the long haul. In fact, he spent the rest of his professional career there, serving under four county administrators.

His role was to remove barriers and create a more diverse workforce, starting first in the county ranks. Gender and race discrimination was typical of that era, particularly in the south. Of the county's 1,400 employees, there were just 60 who were classified as minorities. And the 700 female workers? All were in clerical jobs.

"Getting the conversation going was our first goal," Russell recalls. "We were in uncharted territory. We had to get people to understand things, like if you're going to advertise openings, you had to put the notices in papers where the black community lived."

In 1984, his office took on new responsibilities after Pinellas County amended its affirmative action ordinance. Now the reach extended to protect the public from discrimination in housing, places of public access and employment. His staff handled complaints by residents, reviews of policies with other county agencies and conducted several undercover housing studies that found unfair housing practices against elderly people with pets and families with children.

In later years, other categories were added, with protections for discrimination based on religion, disabilities, sexual orientation and age.

"It's a balancing act," Russell concedes. "Sometimes it's not what it appears to be. The people bringing the complaints aren't always in the right. It was up to us to hear both sides and sort out fiction from fact."

County Commissioner Ken Welch says Pinellas County is a "stronger community" because of Russell's dedication to the principle of equal rights and opportunities for all. And human resources director Peggy Rowe says his "positive imprint" has changed the lives of many.

"It's difficult to measure the full impact of Leon Russell's legacy," she says. "He was able to bring people together in a non-confrontational manner. He is a true peacemaker."

As much as he loved his job, Russell is also loving retirement.

Single and without even a pet to worry about, he has the flexibility to travel at a moment's notice. Coming up: a trip to Holland for a Viking river cruise, where he will take in the country's famous windmills, tulips and canals.

Then there's his first love – Hawaii. Last April, he spent a whole month visiting five of the islands. He got talked into buying a Fender ukulele, which he has yet to master. He also loves the time difference, which sometimes puts him out of touch with the still-constant demands of the NAACP.

"I love my work there, but it's nice to take a break," he admits. Next month, he will run again for election as vice chairman of the board.

He has more time now to devote to his "mentees" – black youth from high school and college who come to him informally for guidance. He's seen many grow up and become responsible adults who are assets in their communities. Russell beams when he speaks of Brendien Mitchell of Ocala, a young man he's worked with for several years who serves as president of the Florida NAACP youth and college division.

"He's in his first year at Howard University, and he's got a 3.8 average," Russell says proudly. "Those are the kids the public doesn't hear about. It's the 10 percent who mess up who get all the attention."

Never in his dreams did Russell believe there would be a black president in his lifetime. But despite all the forward strides minorities have achieved in the last five decades, he says, "We aren't there yet." If King was alive today, Russell says, he would still be championing for economic justice and for equal access to affordable health care. He would still be a spokesman for peace.

Will there ever be a leader to be that voice?

"This is what I always say: Moses is dead. Martin Luther King is dead," he says. "We have to stop looking for epic leaders. It's our responsibility to be individual leaders. That's what it will take to bring about change."


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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