Barely literate when he left the South, because of the limited educational opportunities available to black Alabamans - he had five years of schooling, ninety days per year - Perry educated himself by reading the Communist Manifesto and Capital. He also became an avid student of black history and subscribed to the Journal of Negro History.
In 1907 he began working in the cotton fields for his uncle, Stokes King; seven years later he hired out as a farmhand to a plantation owner. After a dispute with this man, Perry left the rural South in 1915, seeking industrial employment in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama.
At about the same time, while in prison in Birmingham for a curfew violation, he witnessed the death by flogging of a fellow black convict. This event, combined with earlier experiences of economic deprivation and racial prejudice, led Perry to leave the South in 1917. From then until 1924, he drifted, riding freight trains and episodically taking menial jobs in thirty-five different states. In 1924 he "settled" in California, working during winters at a cottonseed mill in Los Angeles and in the spring and summer on farms in the Imperial Valley.
While employed in Los Angeles, Perry learned in 1932, through a Communist activist, of the Communist party's defense efforts on behalf of the "Scottsboro boys, " black youths arrested in Alabama and charged with raping two white girls. He joined the party's International Labor Defense (ILD) Committee in April 1932, and devoted all of his time to soliciting signatures for petitions and selling subscriptions to the ILD newspaper. Eventually he headed the Los Angeles chapter of the ILD. In September 1932 he joined the Communist party.
A devoted Communist, he rose steadily from local section to district committee leader, and was a Communist candidate for state and federal offices. In 1948, Perry moved to New York City to head the Communist party's National Negro Work Commission, and in 1950 he was appointed head of the party's Farm Commission. His article in the Communist periodical Political Affairs, "Destroy the Virus of White Chauvinism" (October 1949), initiated a demoralizing intraparty campaign against the alleged "white chauvinism" of some of its members and sympathizers. In 1950, Perry was elected an alternate member of the Communist party's National Committee. With the imprisonment or underground status of National Committee members following the Supreme Court's ruling in Dennis v. United States, Perry, William Z. Foster, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn formed the party's official ruling triumvirate.
He and eleven other "second-string" Communist leaders in New York City were arrested on June 20, 1951, under provisions of the Smith Act. Because of the statute of limitations and because Perry had not been a prominent leader of the Communist party until 1950, his indictment was limited to his having attended Communist party meetings. Perry's trial began on April 15, 1952, in federal district court in New York City before Judge Edward Dimock. Perry acted as his own counsel during the 263-day trial and also served on the committee to formulate Communist strategy for the trial. On January 22, 1953, after deliberating for seven days, the jury handed down a guilty verdict. Offered the choice of imprisonment or deportation to the Soviet Union, Perry responded: "I intend to stay in the United States. I was born and raised here and that's where I intend to stay. " He was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $5, 000.
After his release he resumed an active role in Communist activities.
He died in Moscow while receiving medical treatment for a severe lung ailment and chronic heart disease.
Despite his "black proletarian" background, Perry never succeeded in recruiting a mass black following for the Communist party. Even his "white chauvinist" campaign, which unfairly castigated many party members, did not serve to make the Communist party more attractive to blacks.
Perry had a wife and three sons