Matthew Perry’s Career Changed Lives

Friday, August 12, 2011

By LEE HARTER, The Times and Democrat

Many of the larger-than-life figures from the civil rights era in South Carolina have come and gone from this world. The latest, and among the most notable, is Matthew J. Perry Jr., South Carolina's first African-American federal district judge and a South Carolina State University alumnus.

He is a man who leaves a profound impact on South Carolina.

Perry was born into segregation not far from the federal courthouse in Columbia that now bears his name. He went on to become South Carolina's pre-eminent civil rights attorney, which led to his appointment as the first African-American federal judge from the Deep South and the first black federal district judge in this state.

In 1939, he began working part-time jobs to pay for his tuition at then-South Carolina State College. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and completed his education with a degree in business administration in 1948. He earned a law degree from the former S.C. State law school in 1951.

As a young civil rights lawyer, Perry was instrumental in achieving many successes for African-Americans. He tried cases that led to the integration of beaches, parks, restaurants and public schools. His trial work led to the release of some 7,000 people arrested for sit-in protests.

In 1963, he won the case that forced Clemson University to admit black students. Perhaps his most significant case resulted in the reapportionment of the S.C. House of Representatives.

In 1975, he was appointed to the U.S. Military Court of Appeals. President Jimmy Carter named him federal district judge for South Carolina in 1979.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law #103-360, designating a yet-to-be constructed federal courthouse in Columbia in Perry's honor. The $30.1 million Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse was dedicated

in 2004. A biography - "Matthew J. Perry: The Man, His Times and His Legacy" - was published in 2004.
Congressman James Clyburn knew Judge Perry well. He said of the jurist that Perry was a man who shied away from the accolades he so deserved.

In a statement after Perry's death, Clyburn said, "America has lost one of its greatest legal minds and a stalwart of the civil rights movement. I have lost a mentor and a dear friend. I was just a teenager when my mother first took me to watch him defend the NAACP in a Sumter courtroom. In her words, she wanted me to see what I could be when I grew up. He electrified the courtroom and although he lost that case, and many others during the civil rights movement, he won the hearts and minds of all who witnessed him in action and every one of those civil rights cases on appeal.”

"Our paths crossed again when he chose me for his star witness in the March 1960 Orangeburg case in which 388 student protesters were arrested for breaching the peace. After that, I did my student teaching in a Spartanburg school across the street from Matthew Perry's law office. I often visited with him and we spent hours talking, and became fast friends. I learned so much from his tutelage and sought to emulate this larger-than-life figure."

Importantly, Perry is credited with fighting the fight over civil rights but never losing civility in the process. Compared to other states' problems, Judge Perry made a difference in South Carolina's civil rights era experience.

Again quoting Clyburn: "His spirit was passionate but understated, and his demeanor was judicious both inside and outside the courtroom. We have lost a legend in Matthew Perry, but his influence continues to live on in so many of us whose lives he changed forever."

Noted South Carolina historian Walter Edgar had a similar assessment, giving our state appropriate words by which to describe and remember the man: "Matthew Perry - an iron fist in a velvet glove - courteous, polite, even jocular ... but unshakably determined."