S.C. Loses Civil Rights Legend Judge Matthew Perry

Aug 1, 2011

The state of South Carolina has lost a leading light of its Civil Rights transformation, as U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Perry died this past weekend. Perry, who spurred social and educational integration, would have celebrated his 90th birthday this week.

"As the leading civil rights lawyer in South Carolina, he helped transform our society and made South Carolina a better place to live for all the people," says University of South Carolina law professor W. Lewis Burke, who has written a book about Perry. "While he was a giant in every way, he was a modest man whose personality made him a friend to everyone he met."

Writing in the Columbia, S.C., newspaper The State, Dawn Hinshaw sums up Perry's legal career:

During the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Perry was a young, unflappable attorney who made friends of his enemies even as he compelled resistant whites to open public parks and university classrooms to black South Carolinians.

He knew the law when few black men did. Every courtroom appearance, he once said, was a crusade to prove he was thoroughly prepared.

He was an effective advocate, too, earning reprieves for thousands of people, many of them students protesting segregation and slapped with trespassing charges.

In 2004, a new federal courthouse was given his name.

Perry worked to desegregate schools in his home state. He also argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning four out of five cases.

And Perry was on the team that worked on the case of Sarah Mae Flemming, who sued a transit company after her attempts to use the bus door reserved for whites brought an altercation with the driver. The Flemming ruling set a precedent that later supported Rosa Parks in a similar case, in Montgomery, Ala.

In another of Perry's well-known cases, he brought about the adoption of single-member districts in South Carolina's House of Representatives, making it possible for more black lawmakers to get elected.

In the mid-1970s, President Gerald Ford appointed Perry to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, after he was recommended by Sen. Strom Thurmond. Several years later, President Jimmy Carter nominated him to be a U.S. District judge. And he worked in that capacity until his death.

Perry became interested in the law while serving during World War II. Law professor Burke, a historian of the Civil Rights Era, told me the story in an e-mail:

He was a sergeant in the Army, on a troop train traveling across Alabama — and there was a stop to change trains. He went looking for food and was directed to the back window of the café in the train station.

As he stood outside looking in the window, he saw Italian prisoners of war being waited on by the waitresses, while he and his fellow African-American soldiers had to eat outside.

The AP has a quote from Perry about that incident. "You have no idea the feeling of insult I experienced. As I say, that one reverberates," he said.

So Perry looked for ways to change rules that he knew were unfair. After the establishment in 1947 of a law school at the all-black South Carolina State College, Perry's path to become a lawyer, and finally a judge, opened up. He was the school's first graduate to pass the bar.

In court, Perry fought for student (and, later, politician) Harvey Gantt's right to attend Clemson University, in a case that effectively integrated the school in 1963. He also represented Gloria Blackwell, a woman arrested for sitting in a hospital's "whites only" waiting area.

And when Perry was named to the U.S. District Court in 1979, his assumption of the new role caused a sensation.

As The State reports, "On the day he was sworn in as a federal judge in Columbia, the courthouse was packed. Jurors, still seated in the jury box from an earlier trial, asked if they might remain in the room."

Politicians came; so did people off the street. They were all eager to see the first black federal judge in South Carolina.

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