Justice  /  Biography

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.

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.