By Andrea Davis
He was a man who switched from a career as an athlete to a spokesman for the people in the matter of a day, using a personal setback caused by racial discrimination to launch a career in civil rights.
By the time he died in a car accident at the age of 38, Rutledge Henry Pearson had accomplished more than anyone ever thought a man his color could accomplish at that time. He was a talented baseball player, an educator, a civil rights leader and human rights activist.
The Jacksonville native was an active member of the community, serving as both a teacher and a baseball coach at local schools. He taught his students that there was more to history then what was in their approved history books where the only blacks mentioned were George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington.
And on the forefront of the civil rights battles, Pearson taught people that they must constantly strive to obtain the respect all people deserved. It was a fight from which he never shrank.
“Mr. Pearson used a particular saying when he talked with us about the NAACP and the struggle for human dignity and respect,” remembered Rodney Hurst Sr., a Jacksonville author and activist who once had Pearson as a teacher. “He simply said, ‘Freedom is not free and if you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.’”
It was September 1929 when Pearson was born in Jacksonville, the youngest son of Lloyd Pearson Sr. and Ruth Pearson and one of six siblings.
He graduated from Stanton High School in 1947 before he moved to Texas on a baseball scholarship. He went to Huston-Tillotson in Austin where he studied sociology and graduated in 1951.
It was also here that Pearson met Mary Ann Johnson, who would later become his wife.
As a young man, Pearson was a successful baseball player who had a career as a first-baseman with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League. He later went on to play for the Cincinnati Reds.
In 1954, Pearson’s career in baseball had led him back to Jacksonville where he had a chance to play on the city’s professional team, the Jacksonville Beach Seabirds. But because he was black, the owners decided they would rather close the baseball park than to let him play for them.
It was that incident that re-focused Pearson on a new career path and he dedicated the rest of his life to fighting for civil and human rights.
His brother, Lloyd Pearson Jr., who still lives in Jacksonville, remembers his tenacity.
“He was fearful, but he didn’t let fear cause him not to slow down. He told me one day, ‘You know some people talking about how I’m not scared. I’m just as scared as the rest of them, but I just keep going.’”
And that’s what he did.
In 1961, Pearson was elected president of the Jacksonville Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP. He was later elected president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.
In addition to his work with the NAACP, Pearson was also a history and civics teacher at Isaiah Blocker School, which was later demolished. In fact, it was in the classroom of an eighth-grade history class where Pearson first met Hurst.
“Mr. Pearson not only taught us in his American history and civics classes, but he encouraged us to join an organization called the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” Hurst said.
Under Pearson’s tuteledge, Hurst became a member of the NAACP Youth Council at age 11, of which Pearson was the advisor. “He was my mentor,” Hurst said.
It was also Pearson who helped organize the peaceful sit-ins to protest segregation that eventually led to one of the most violent episodes during the fight for civil rights in Jacksonville.
That was the day 16-year-old Hurst and others were chased through the streets of the city by some 200 whites wielding baseball bats and ax handles after a small group of blacks had “dared” to ask to be served at a whites-only lunch counter. It came to be called Ax Handle Saturday.
In part because of his activism for equal rights, Pearson was forced out of the Duval County school system in 1964.
This only led Pearson to focus more on his fight for civil rights.
Only three years later, in 1967, Pearson was killed in an automobile accident trying to extend rights to yet another group of people.
He had been on his way to help organize laundry workers in Memphis when his car supposedly hit a bridge; his brother, Lloyd Pearson Jr., along with Hurst and Pearson’s widow, Mary, however, say marks on Pearson’s head indicated he might have been beaten.
After his death, Pearson was buried in Jacksonville’s Evergreen Cemetery.
To commemorate this remarkable hometown hero, Jacksonville has named a street in honor of Pearson as well as an elementary school on Roanoke Boulevard and a bridge.
Pearson’s brother, who is now 96, still speaks proudly of his brother and laments a life cut too short.
“He had done some great things. But I believe there was something greater down the road if he had just lived.”
Hurst, too, remembers his mentor with admiration.
“Mr. Pearson’s classroom teaching, and his involvement with the NAACP outside the classroom, took a lot of courage in the 50s,” Hurst said. “The civil rights movement in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s is a history of brave and unselfish black leaders fighting against racism and segregation and for the equality of all people in the United States.”
Pearson finally received the recognition he deserved almost 50 years after his death when he was inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame in May 2016.
The following year the U.S. post office at 1100 Kings Road was recognized as the Rutledge Pearson Post Office after a bill, that passed both House and Senate was submitted by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson.
“Rutledge Pearson was both a trailblazer and torch bearer in this community,” Lawson said. “It was because of his lifelong commitment toward racial equality and human rights that opened the door for many. His legacy was born out of the hate and discrimination he faced, and used this to inspire a movement rooted in love and acceptance for all.”