It’s difficult to think of another American who had a life just like Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known as polarizing comedian Stepin Fetchit. Born in 1902, Perry used a stereotypical lazy-man persona to become the first black actor to reach millionaire status. History hasn’t been kind to his screen character, as blacks and whites alike came in time to see it as degrading. But Perry felt otherwise; he believed it was a means to an end. He thought that his on-screen buffoonery, stereotypical as it was, transformed the popular perception of a black man in America from one of a fearsome or predatory figure to that of a lovable clown. And he felt he paved the way for other people of color to become screen stars who didn’t have to play the fool. Perhaps he’s right, though it’s still incredibly painful to watch. Perry became a lightning rod for criticism during the Black Power movement of the 1960s but never backed away from his beliefs.
A tangent: When he was young, Perry was friends with embattled boxer Jack Johnson. (They must have been quite the pair–the fighter who enjoyed making whites nervous and the entertainer who wanted to reassure them.) After he joined the Nation of Islam during the 1960s, Perry supposedly taught Johnson’s “anchor punch” to another controversial African-American heavyweight, Muhammad Ali. The Greatest used the maneuver to defeat Sonny Liston in their second fight. At the 8:00 mark of this passage from the 1970 documentary A.K.A. Cassius Clay, Perry and Ali ham it up for reporters.
Another Perry tangent, this one horribly tragic: His disturbed son, Donald Lambright, who used his stepfather’s name, committed what appeared to be a number of racially motivated murders. From the April 7, 1969 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Johnson said Lambright slept with a .30-caliber rifle in his bed.
‘Donald said he needed protection from whites,’ Johnson said. ‘He was paranoiac at the time.’
Johnson said Lambright was friendly with many black militant leaders and was a member of the Republic of New Africa, a black separatist organization.
‘Donald thought he had the answers to a lot of problems. And he felt the only way some of them could be resolved would be through violent action.’
At 9:14 a.m. yesterday, state police said, Lambright and his wife entered the Pennsylvania Turnpike where it crosses the Delaware River from New Jersey.
About 45 minutes later, Lambright began shooting.
Witnesses said most of the firing was done as he drove along, slowly weaving from lane to lane. They said he fired into eastbound traffic. Now and then he pulled over and fired from the roadside.•