Born on September 19, 1947 to upper-middle-class parents in San Francisco, Nancy Ling Perry grew up in a politically conservative family and campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. She attended Whittier College for two years before transferring in 1967 to UC Berkeley, where she became part of the radical campus culture and earned a degree in English. In 1967 as well, Nancy wed Gilbert Perry, an African American jazz musician to whom she would stay married for six years.
In the early 1970s Ms. Perry became involved with the Black Cultural Association (BCA), a black inmate organization that was active in California’s Vacaville Prison at that time. Coordinated by UC Berkeley instructor Colston Westbrook, the BCA brought a number of young white radicals—like Perry, Russell Little, William Wolfe, Joseph Remiro, William Harris, Emily Harris, and Angela Atwood—to the prison to tutor black inmates (like Donald DeFreeze) in political science, black sociology, and African heritage. Over time, the BCA became increasingly political and ever-more committed to black nationalism. “In the eyes of the young radicals,” says PBS.org, “the black prisoners, no matter what their crime, took on heroic proportions as political prisoners, oppressed by a racist and corrupt American society.”
After a stint working as a topless blackjack dealer in San Francisco’s North Beach section, Perry sold juice drinks from a sidewalk stand located on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus. A heavy abuser of illegal drugs as well, Perry also went by the names Nancy Devoto and Lynn Ledworth.
Politically, Perry considered herself a revolutionary who wished to help overthrow the American government. She found a most comfortable ideological home when in 1973 she joined the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a Marxist-Leninist terror cult that sought to topple the U.S. government by means of guerrilla warfare. Perry served as the SLA’s information officer.
In November 1973 the SLA claimed responsibility for the murder of Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland, California School District. (For details of this killing and the motivations behind it, click here.) In the wake of Foster’s death, all SLA members went into hiding. On January 10, 1974, two of them—Russell Little and Joseph Remiro—were stopped for a traffic violation while driving a vehicle filled with weapons and SLA propaganda materials. They were questioned regarding Foster’s murder and were promptly taken into custody. Later that day, Perry, having heard about the arrests, set fire to the SLA’s Concord, California safe house in an effort to destroy any evidence that might be useful to the police. When officers arrived at the house, they found it damaged but not burned down—and thus, with a significant amount of evidence still intact.
In January 1974, Perry reaffirmed her radical spirit when she wrote that “all members of the SLA understand that politics are inseparable from struggle, in fact politics have no meaning without armed combat and information units to give politics a purpose.” On the 17th of that month, she put out a communique stating that the SLA was composed of “freedom fighters” who were battling “oppression” in the United States, a nation that had been “overthrown since 1963.” “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people,” Perry added, quoting the SLA’s famous motto.
On April 15, 1974, Perry and four fellow SLA members—Patricia Soltysik, Donald DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, and Patricia Hearst—carried out a gunpoint robbery of some $10,690 from a Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Two men who entered the bank while the robbery was occurring were shot and wounded.
On May 17, 1974, Perry was one of six SLA members who were killed in a two-hour shootout with police at the terror group’s hideout in South Central Los Angeles. The others who died were Angela Atwood, Donald DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, Patricia Soltysik, and William Wolfe.
Further Reading: “3 Women: Their Paths Leading to Terrorism” (NY Times, 4-23-1974); Terrorism (by Hal Marcovitz, 2001, pp. 57-58); “The Man and the Mystery Behind the SLA Terror” (People.com, 4-29-1974); “The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army” (PBS.org); “The SLA Is the CIA” (by Mae Brussell, from The Realist, February 1974); “Symbionese Liberation Army: The Revolution Was Televised” (Rolling Stone, 6-20-1974); “What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” (Slate.com, 6-24-2002).