By Jeffrey Collins
ABOVE PHOTO: U.S. District Judge Matthew Perry speaks at the dedication of the federal courthouse named in his honor in 2004, in Columbia, S.C. Perry, a civil rights lawyer who went from sitting in the courtroom balcony because he was black to having the federal courthouse in Columbia, S.C., named in his honor, died Sunday, July 31, 2011. He was 89.
(AP Photo/Lou Krasky, File)
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Matthew Perry, a civil rights lawyer who went from sitting in the courtroom balcony waiting for his cases to be heard because he was black to having the federal courthouse in Columbia named in his honor, has died. He was 89.
Perry died on last Sunday, according to Leevy’s Funeral Home, which is handling arrangements.
He first made his name in South Carolina with civil rights cases. That included successfully representing Harvey Gant, who became the first black student to attend classes at Clemson University.
In 1975, Perry became the first black judge in the state named to the federal bench at the U.S. Court of Military Appeals. Four years later, he became a U.S. District judge.
Throughout it all, friends said Perry kept the same warm spirit that endeared him to many and defused his critics. Both his friends and his adversaries say it was that kindness that helped South Carolina integrate with less violence than nearly every other Southern state.
“He is the only militant civil rights figure I know of who seems to be loved and respected by both racial groups while still engaged in the struggle,” wrote Robert Carter, a U.S. District Judge in New York in the book “Matthew J. Perry: The Man, His Times, And His Legacy.”
Perry was born in Columbia on Aug. 3, 1921. He was raised by his mother and grandfather after his tailor father died when he was 12.
After high school, Perry enrolled at South Carolina State University. But World War II interrupted his schooling and led him to dedicate his life to civil rights.
While on leave, Perry stopped at a restaurant in Alabama. He had to order his sandwich from a window outside the kitchen while Italian prisoners-of-war were served inside.
“You have no idea the feeling of insult I experienced. As I say, that one reverberates,” Perry had said about it.
After the war, Perry enrolled at South Carolina State’s new law school and became its first graduate to pass the Bar.
At the urging of his colleagues, Perry moved to Spartanburg to practice law because the area had no black attorneys. He quickly became known for his thorough preparation and willingness to take any case.
But judges and other lawyers never let him forget he was a black man in the South in the 1950s. Perry sometimes had to sit in the balcony with other blacks until his case was called. If he couldn’t stay at the home of his client, he had to drive back home no matter how far because most motels wouldn’t allow black guests.
Perry kept fighting. His civil rights wins were renowned. Along with integrating Clemson, colleagues estimate he got convictions reversed for hundreds if not thousands of people arrested for civil disobedience during the fight to end segregation. Some of them could only pay with baskets of homegrown produce or homemade cakes and pies, offered after Perry had already waived his fee.
“Matthew personified the black lawyer of the 1950s and 1960s — courageous, articulate and persuasive,” said former state Chief Justice Ernest Finney, who graduated from South Carolina State’s law school three years after Perry.
In one of his last cases as an attorney, Perry opened the door of the Statehouse to blacks, forcing South Carolina to adopt single member House districts. In the next election, nearly a dozen black lawmakers were sent to Columbia.
He retired from full-time work in 1995, but kept hearing cases.
In 2004, the new federal courthouse in Columbia was named in his honor, his name etched high above the columns of the $40 million building. A statue of Perry sits in the courtyard. His only complaint about the building was his office didn’t have enough shelves for his massive personal law library.
The star of South Carolina’s civil rights movement occasionally wondered if he could have been a show business sensation. But those who know Perry say he was put here to be an attorney and a judge.
“He just loves the law,” fellow U.S. District Court judge Cameron Currie said in 2004. “This is his life. This is his hobby, and it’s his love.”