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Ivory Perry, the Forgotten Civil Rights Hell-Raiser

Activists are often held up as exemplars of personal morality — but in every social struggle, ordinary people with complex lives rise up as leaders. Ivory Perry was one of these who waged a relentless war for racial and economic justice.

Ivory Perry addressing a civil rights demonstration in front of the St. Louis police headquarters on September 16, 1965, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / Missouri Historical Society

At every inflection point in social struggle, ordinary people emerge on the front lines of protests. Some are celebrated for generations as heroes, martyrs, and icons. But more often these leaders, uninsulated by economic and cultural privilege, pay an enormous price for bravery, and are forgotten by subsequent generations. Among the elderly poor, one occasionally finds a once-fearless activist, now living in modest obscurity, with only old war stories to show for it.

One forgotten fighter is Ivory Perry, who was in and out of homelessness in St. Louis over the years during which George Lipsitz interviewed him for his biography A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition.

For Lipsitz, the problem with traditional protest scholarship is that activists are required to be exemplars of bourgeois morality, “striving to make the public realm conform to the standards of their private lives.” In reality, organic leaders like Perry are often both politically effective and personally complex. Perry was born to a sharecropper in the Jim Crow South. Like many poor black men of Perry’s background, he acquired a long arrest record — and not just for his political activism, though that too. In addition to homelessness, a dishonorable discharge, and incarceration, Perry experienced depression, drug use, and psychiatric issues that ultimately ended his life in tragedy.

But through it all, Perry waged a relentless war for racial and economic justice. For decades he could be found in the streets of St. Louis, raising hell in his signature straw hat. Perry wasn’t perfect. He was an ordinary person dedicated to transforming society through racial and economic justice. Perry fought in the most dangerous parts of the South and Midwest, and his life story deserves to be remembered and learned from.

“Above All, Tell the Truth”

Perry was born on a sharecropping farm in Desha County, Arkansas, in May of 1930. “Perry was just two years old when his mother tied an empty twenty-five-pound flour sack for holding cotton around his neck and brought him to work alongside her in the fields,” writes Lipsitz. The family earned around $1 per day, and no matter how many cotton bales the family picked, Ivory’s mother, Pearl Perry, heard the same story: “You almost got out of the hole this time; try again next year.” Though organizations like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union attempted to improve the lives of black farmers, the situation remained dire. The Perry family moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1943, seeking relief.

In Pine Bluff, Perry encountered Miss Jones of Merrill High School, who used to drive her car up and down the main street watching for students sneaking into juke joints. Miss Jones would walk right into the Strand or Vester theaters to search for students skipping school and drag them out on the spot.

Perry admired Miss Jones for her honesty. She was a strong center around which community life revolved. “If it weren’t for Miss Jones,” Perry told Lipsitz, “I’d probably be dead now. She taught me respect for people and a respect for truth — that your word is supposed to be your bond.” Perry would not always live up to Miss Jones’s example, but he always took it seriously.

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Pearl Perry took her son to church often, but Perry was skeptical. “These whites doing lynchings, they were Baptists too,” Perry remembered thinking. “And I couldn’t figure out, if they was such good Christians, why they were killing innocent people?”

“This was a person who was born very close to slavery,” Lipsitz told Jacobin, “as thorough a dictatorship as you could imagine. And he was taught that there is always something you can do about that.” Despite dire poverty and the entrenched racism that made equality seem unthinkable, the end of slavery opened utopian pathways in Perry’s mind. His family and community were poor and oppressed. Instead of waiting for his eternal reward in heaven, “I want to get my reward in this world,” he decided.

Ivory Perry in a classroom. (Missouri Historical Society)

In 1948 Perry joined the military, one of the only career paths available to him. He hoped to leave American racism behind but found that Arkansas followed him overseas. Lipsitz writes, “Perry saw the words ‘[n-word] go home’ scrawled on walls wherever white GIs had been, and he resented the publicity given to white units when victories by black troops went unreported.” Black soldiers who fell asleep on sentry duty were charged with “misconduct in the face of the enemy,” while white soldiers faced a lesser charge of “sleeping on duty.”

During the war, Perry got frostbite, and was shot twice by the enemy. On his own side, he was assaulted by white soldiers. “I remember one night I was in Korea,” Perry recalled, “and a white soldier called me a [n-word]. And we got into it. . . . I got the best of him and he was bleeding like I don’t know what.” The white soldier repeated his offense over and over. “And I said to myself then, ‘Now this is a die-hard racist. He’s gonna die a racist. Now he’s over here fighting too and I’m trying to protect him because we’re in the same outfit together.’ But that kind of did something to me.”

In interviews for A Life in the Struggle, it took time for Perry to admit that he was found guilty of insubordination and possession of drugs during service. Ivory claimed he’d purchased a coat with a small bag of heroin already in it. He was court-martialed and served time in the stockade before receiving a dishonorable discharge.

It was hardly an auspicious beginning to his decades of political activism. But Perry was not drawn to activism because it affirmed his virtue. He was drawn to it because he wanted more agency than was ordinarily afforded to a poor black man on the fringes of a racist and highly unequal society.

The War Comes Home

Returning from Korea, Perry was struck by the United States’ hypocrisy — a process that radicalized many black servicemen returning from World War II. His time in battle had left deep psychological wounds. “Every now and then I still have a dream,” Perry told Lipsitz. “I hear kids crying, babies creaming. You know, we had some real stomp-down racists in the Korean War, officers. I done seen them burning houses up on ladies having babies. We used to tell them, ‘Captain, there’s a lady in there giving birth to a baby.’ He still burned the house up.” But his service in America’s wars guaranteed him neither safety nor respect at home.

In the early 1960s, Amiri Baraka pointed out the fundamental connection between the Korean War and the emergence of the modern civil rights movement. Black Korean War veterans like James Foreman, Bobby Seale, and James Meredith entered activism after their experiences in the war, as did Perry when he arrived in St. Louis — a city every bit as racist as Arkansas, only less predictable.

“At least in Arkansas you knew what you could do and what you could not do,” Perry said. In St. Louis, Perry found that the goalposts of acceptable behavior for black people moved constantly; punishment was severe, and often unexpected. But in the 1950s, the city swelled with industrial jobs, and a massive influx of black workers increased the likelihood of unrest. That friction created a new generation of activists.

Perry took jobs that were typical for black St. Louis residents of the time: working in warehouses, driving taxicabs, spray painting, welding, blasting, steam cleaning, making sewer pipes at Dickey-Clay, painting electrical equipment at General Cable. And the police dogged him every step of the way. “Ivory Perry acquired a long arrest record even though he had never been convicted of any crime,” Lipsitz writes. “Underpaid, harassed by police . . . those frustrations helped drive him into the Civil Rights Movement. . . . From Monday to Friday, he was just another laborer, but in the Civil Rights Movement he could take concrete actions that addressed the main hurts of his life.”

For the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, an organic intellectual is not a “momentary mover of feelings and passions.” They are not supported by patrons and universities, and they are not detached from practical life. Instead, organic intellectuals represent a direct challenge to hegemonic class rule because they are rooted in, and deeply impacted by, the economic and political life of their community. Perry’s community was black people, poor people, working people, the marginalized, the oppressed. He found meaning in advocacy for his neighbors. If a single mother needed her electricity turned back on, Perry would march down to the office and make it happen.

Ivory Perry lies down in front of a police car during a protest against police brutality. (St. Louis Mercantile Library)

Like Percy Green, another St. Louis civil rights leader, Ivory joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and took part in carefully planned confrontations with power including the 1963 Jefferson Bank Protest — a now-famous action against a citywide absence of black hires for white-collar jobs. The campaign “brought large numbers of people from the black community into the Civil Rights Movement,” says Lipsitz, and the actions won concessions from the bank.

Perry moved between CORE and the more radical Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION), which demanded jobs and improved economic prospects for black families, not just integration. Perry walked picket lines in protest of unfair hiring and chained himself to the doors of utility companies like Laclede Gas.

Amid ongoing racial violence in Alabama, St. Louis activists wanted to draw attention to Martin Luther King Jr’s planned protest march in Selma. Perry and another activist named Ernest Gilkey decided to disable a yellow U-Haul truck at a crucial off-ramp of a St. Louis highway. In coordination with three other actions, Perry drove the truck up the off-ramp of a major St. Louis highway, then parked it diagonally and turned off the ignition. “He left the vehicle and locked its doors. Gilkey let the air out of the right front tire. When a taxi tried to pass the truck by driving on the grass shoulder, Perry threw himself in front of the cab, directly in front of the wheels,” Lipsitz writes — a true Ivory Perry move. The cab driver slammed on the brakes, Ivory stayed put, and traffic backed up for hours and hours.

Perry’s highway protest cost him a $250 fine for disturbing the peace and thirty days in the squalid jail nicknamed “The Workhouse.” But as he’d hoped, the news media reported his arrest and his reasons, and the U-Haul stunt is credited with the impressive turnout on March 25, when Ivory Perry and nineteen busloads of St. Louis demonstrators traveled to Alabama to join the march. The Selma protests pressured Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In Bogalusa, Louisiana, Perry saw some of the most violent civil rights conflicts firsthand, battling the Ku Klux Klan and a complicit police force. Black workers and veterans formed an armed self-defense group called the Deacons for Defense and Justice. “Bogalusa was very educational,” Perry told Lipsitz, “It showed me another side of America: violence and hatred that I couldn’t believe could happen here. But there was also a damn good organization there — CORE people who could get the community organized and keep it organized.”

Of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, Perry said, “I ain’t never liked no guns. See I don’t like killing and I don’t like violence. You know, I was in Korea, and a lot of people say guns don’t kill, that people kill. But guns do kill, because if you don’t have a gun you wouldn’t be able to kill nobody. I know it takes a person to pull the trigger, but I just don’t like to spill no blood.”

Community Poison

Perry returned to St. Louis after the summer of ’65 to a charged political atmosphere. St. Louis was just beginning an economic free fall that would last decades and impact the St. Louis working-class black community first and foremost. As the decline set in, Perry lent his efforts to neighborhood improvement associations and anti-poverty programs like the Human Development Corporation.

The Watts Riots dialed up tensions with police, and on September 13, 1965, a St. Louis officer put a bullet in fifteen-year-old Melvin Childs’s back. The boy was fleeing the general area of a reported burglary. Four days later, police killed nineteen-year-old Robert Robinson when he fled questioning, and defended their right to shoot fleeing suspects. Wielding the slogan “Police Brutality Must Go,” Ivory Perry organized thousands to march on the St. Louis police station and City Hall that year, protesting the murder of black youths. All of this took place not far from Ferguson, Missouri, where the police killing of Michael Brown sparked the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2014.

In time, just like Miss Jones, Perry became a pillar of the North St. Louis community. On the Northside, it was known that Ivory could help with a deadbeat landlord or an eviction notice. And he always kept a watchful eye on the police, unafraid to take them to task for harassment and violence.

In 1966, police shot and killed a nineteen-year-old black youth named Russell Hayes. Hayes was suspected of burglary, and the police said he was reaching into his back pocket for a gun — testimony that was obviously contradicted by the fact that the shooting took place in the courtyard of the police station where Hayes sat handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car. A few weeks later, a sixteen-year-old white youth named Timothy Walsh was shot and killed under similarly suspicious circumstances. Perry organized a joint confrontation with the St. Louis mayor on behalf of poor white and black families. Both communities were being terrorized by police.

The stress of organizing impoverished people in a dangerous city built up throughout the ’60s. “People in power blamed him for calling attention to social problems,” Lipsitz writes. And despite his popularity in the community and centrality to its political life, he was also at times controversial among his own people. “Poor people held him responsible when his tactics failed.”

Malcolm X’s assassination had affected Perry deeply. When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, Perry underwent a nervous collapse. He feared a race war would engulf America, and experienced auditory hallucinations of King and Malcolm X encouraging him to keep the struggle alive. In an episode of mania, Perry was detained and assigned hospital bed rest. He was diagnosed with nervous depression.

From 1968 onward, despite his mental health troubles, Ivory Perry continued as a foot soldier for civil rights. He could be found lying down in front of cars during demonstrations, or mounting the hood with a bull horn in his straw hat, or organizing tenant strikes for buildings that violated code. His greatest strength was his ability to organize people on front stoops and in living rooms, convincing them to fight back.

“He wasn’t an orator,” Lipsitz told Jacobin. “He wasn’t a role model like the figure of the black preacher. Perry’s role in the community centered on action.” That included both protest and advocacy. “I don’t know how many times I was interviewing Perry, and someone would come up and say, ‘You don’t remember me, but my mother was raising us, and we were about to have our lights turned off, and you went down to the utility company and got them turned on.’” That was how Perry established trust as an independent radical, tied to his community organically.

Ivory Perry leading civil rights marchers to City Hall in 1965. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch / Missouri Historical Society)

While out in the community Perry observed sickly children, often with skin rashes, runny noses, and frequent recurring colds. He noted that sometimes the children would eat chips of paint, which were sweet to the taste — and contained lead. Perry brought samples to a Washington University biologist, and it was confirmed that 95 percent of buildings in a surveyed area of North St. Louis contained lead-based paint and plaster, despite lead paint being banned in the 1950s.

Ivory Perry’s longest and most successful organizing campaign was combating the hazards of lead poisoning in St. Louis. At first he was insulted and ignored by doctors and politicians, and spent his own money — what little he had — on testing and campaigning. Ivory was trusted by the community, and was allowed to enter houses to assess the hazard. He petitioned landlords to strip and repaint, and helped prosecute for negligence when they inevitably failed to comply. The unknown blight of child sickness and brain damage in St. Louis was given a name and a cause because Perry agitated, set up testing sites, and published the names of slumlords who refused to address the problem.

Though a pivotal figure at the beginning of this campaign, Ivory would never see the full fruit of his efforts. Throughout the ’80s, the reality of Perry’s situation set in. He was a larger-than-life community activist — but he was also working-class black man in a deindustrialized city with a long arrest record and a lot of trauma, not least from squaring off against white racists and brutal police.

The organizations he championed, like ACTION, were harassed and broken up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTEL program. He was beset by legal trouble due to organizing — both in voter-registration campaigns and in organizing unions. Perry’s mental health deteriorated further, and he was intermittently homeless. “He began to see visions of what he took to be future events,” Lipsitz writes, “and to hear voices warning him about the dangers facing black people in America.” Perry’s family deteriorated, too.

Walking the Hell Zone

In 1989, Ivory’s son Reginald had been living with his father for three years. Ivory had secured his son’s release from a group home in California, but Reginald was very ill. He had been committed to a psychiatric ward previously, and had threatened suicide.

Ivory himself was experiencing continued hallucinations while trying to remain active in local politics, but the situation was a powder keg. On February 15, it came to a brutal head. “Twenty-four-year-old Reginald Perry walked into the Union Boulevard Seventh District Police Station two blocks from his home,” writes Lipsitz, “and told Officer Willie Mae Anderson at the front desk, ‘I just murdered my father,’ He placed a blood-stained thirteen-inch-long brown butcher’s knife on the counter and started to cry.”

Reginald Perry was convicted of first-degree murder. Ivory Perry died of his wounds.

“Ivory walked the hell zone of the decimated inner city to detoxify a building here, to place a family in substantial shelter there,” wrote Otis L. Bolden, assistant dean at Forest Park Community College, after his death. “Many black parents and more black children were touched in life sustaining ways by him.”

Perry hoped George Lipsitz’s book, A Life in the Struggle, would cement his legacy as an activist and organizer, despite the chaos of his life. “What he wanted from me was a bougie, coat-and-tie, glasses-wearing Jewish intellectual who could write a book that could go places he couldn’t go,” Liptiz told Jacobin. “Be in college classrooms, be taken seriously by someone reviewing it in the newspaper, and that would pass along these lessons for someone who could find them.”

“When I spoke at his funeral, I said he was the most connected, collective person I had ever known. It wasn’t just that he had a lot of associates and friends,” Lipsitz continued. It was that Perry was connected to the to the world and to life through collective struggle. For Perry, “survival depended upon finding value in circumstances that others would find hopeless.”

Devin Thomas O’Shea’s writing has appeared in the NationProteanCurrent AffairsBoulevard, and elsewhere.

Jacobin is a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture. The print magazine is released quarterly and reaches 75,000 subscribers, in addition to a web audience of over 3,000,000 a month.