A man in a white shirt and hat lies in front of a car, his arms outstretched on the pavement. A group of men has formed around him, and other people are walking toward the group from the left. The buildings and trees in the background let us know that this activity is taking place on a city street. Standing in the center next to the car a man with a camera films the scene. Another man in light-colored trousers jumps up, and it appears that the contents of the bottle he is holding are spilling toward the others. This photograph captures a moment in time during the civil rights movement in St. Louis. Ivory Perry, a local civil rights leader, lies on the ground stopping traffic at Tucker and Clark during a 1965 demonstration against police brutality.
Ivory Perry moved to St. Louis from rural Pine Bluff at age 24, at a time when thousands of African Americans migrated from the south into northern cities to find work and better lives. The conditions of St. Louis—segregation into deteriorating houses, discrimination, low wages, and problems with the police—made the transition to urban life difficult for Perry and many other migrants. Unions denied membership, discriminatory “load practices” were common, and white supremacist attitudes were widespread in both politics and social life.
Despite these difficulties, St. Louis had a vibrant African American cultural scene, and the city’s African Americans responded to discrimination by forming groups to work together to make changes. Perry’s firsthand experience with segregation motivated him to become part of the local civil rights movement. He began to attend CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) meetings and started taking part in sit-ins and demonstrations. Perry became a key organizer and leader, helping to ensure the success of the Jefferson Bank demonstrations and many other local civil actions. Perry is best known for working with Ernest Gilkey to create a massive traffic jam in the city in March 1966. Perry and Gilkey did a “stall-in” at the Highway 40 exit ramp at Kingshighway to raise public awareness of the violence taking place in Alabama against peaceful civil rights leaders. Perry and other protestors often found themselves jailed, but Perry was willing to take this risk. “I’m in jail anyway,” he said; “as long as there are places I can’t go and things I can’t do, I’m already in jail.”National Historic Connections:
The actions of Ivory Perry and his fellow St. Louis civil rights workers were just part of the movement taking place all over the country. Brown v. Board of Education, the brutal murder of Emmett Till, and Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to white patrons on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus are some of the major events that sparked the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The fight started in courtrooms, but in the mid-1950s strategy shifted to bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and other nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. Mass civil action; boycotts; demonstrations against segregation at lunch counters, parks, theaters, museums, and other public places; and marches brought the struggle for equal rights to the attention of the American public. The long fight for equality was often brutally violent, and many civil rights workers were murdered or beaten for their involvement in the movement. After many years of struggle, the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) set the stage to change the nation to one of equality and tolerance.