Judge Matthew Perry (1921 - 2011)

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S.C. mourns death of civil-rights 'giant'

Federal judge, 89, found dead at his Columbia home



U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Perry, a towering civil rights figure who used intellect, hard work and courage to end segregation in South Carolina and usher in a more just society, was found dead at his home on Sunday. He would have turned 90 this week.

Perry, who went to work as usual on Friday at the courthouse that now bears his name, apparently died of natu-ral causes Friday evening. His body was discovered by a family member who came by each Sunday to prepare a meal for Perry and his wife Hallie, Richland County coroner Gary Watts said. Hallie Perry is in poor health, Watts said.

News of Perry's death prompted an outpouring of emotion as colleagues, friends and clients remembered a man who, like former U.S. Sen. Ernest ""Fritz"" Hollings and the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, was a transformative figure in the political life of the state.

""He was a shining example of unflinching courage and leadership,"" Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said in a statement. ""Simply put, he was a giant and this world will be a lesser place without him.""

The mayor said flags at city buildings will be flown at half-staff in coming days.

""Matthew Perry - an iron fist in a velvet glove - courteous, polite, even jocular … but unshakably determined,"" S.C. historian Walter Edgar said.

Perry's birthday was to be commemorated this weekend at a celebration organized by S.C. trial lawyers in Hilton Head.

Perry was one of the first black men from the South appointed to a federal court. At his death, he was still serv-ing as a senior U.S. District Court judge for the state of South Carolina.

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

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.
For Matthew Perry, life and the law were one and the same.

In interviews last month reflecting on his life's work, Perry, still sharp as could be, said he continued to worry about his fellow South Carolinians.

""It is gratifying to feel that we have resolved some of our problems of yesteryear but, at the same time, we must recognize there is a long way to go.""

Humiliation and insight

Matthew James Perry Jr. - ""M.J."" to his family - found his calling when he was a veteran of World War II, wait-ing for the fall semester to resume at S.C. State in Orangeburg. Before the war, Perry had studied business ad-ministration. A convergence of experiences would change his course.

As a member of an all-black unit of the U.S. Army, he traveled through Europe, where black people lived with more freedom than they did here. So it was doubly humiliating to Perry when, home on furlough and wearing his uniform, he was forced to order his lunch through a restaurant window while, inside, he could see Italian prisoners of war being served by waitresses.

""I accepted our plight as a fact of life,"" he reflected, ""and yet I was sure that it wasn't right.""

Making plans to finish his college coursework, Perry began going to the courthouse in Columbia to watch trials.
He listened as Thurgood Marshall, later the first black Supreme Court justice, argued two civil rights cases. One had the effect of establishing a separate law school for blacks in Orangeburg.

Perry enrolled. In 1948, he was one of just five men in the second class to graduate.

That same year, he married Hallie Bacote of Timmonsville, who once said she had noticed him on campus be-cause ""he looked so sad."" They had one child, Michael.

The Perrys moved to Spartanburg, where in 1951 he was the only black lawyer in town. It was a lonely time in his career.

""He opened a one-room office with an Underwood typewriter and a new briefcase, a graduation present from his wife,"" wrote historian and longtime friend Bob Moore. ""He dressed like a lawyer, took his empty briefcase to the courthouse, and observed how the lawyers operated. Law school had not entirely prepared him for court-room practice.""

In the mid-1950s, Perry was asked to take on a case for the National Association for the Advancement of Col-ored People, which was sharpening its assault on segregation and discrimination. The case, its subject lost to history, paired him with a childhood friend, the late Lincoln Jenkins. In 1961, they opened a law firm together at 1107½ Washington St. in Columbia, above the black-owned Phoenix Restaurant.

It was an era of protest. Students defied segregation at department-store lunch counters. They staged sit-ins in Charleston, Orangeburg, Columbia, Sumter, Greenville and Rock Hill.

Perry represented them. By one count, he got as many as 7,000 protesters acquitted on appeals, because that was his strategy - to make his case to a local judge, knowing he'd lose, and go on to pursue justice in higher courts.

Three of his cases Perry acknowledged as having far-reaching contributions to civil rights advancements in South Carolina: a 1972 lawsuit forcing the state of South Carolina to elect its House members from districts, immedi-ately quadrupling the number of black legislators; and two cases from 1963 that opened the doors of both Clemson and the University of South Carolina to black students.

In an essay about Perry's role in promoting racial progress in America, Harvard Law scholar Randall Kennedy once wrote that Perry was never bitter because he believed racists were ignorant, not evil.

'Let them have at it'

As Perry's influence and public persona grew, he was approached repeatedly about running for public office.

In 1974, when he was 52, he agreed to run for Congress against the late Floyd Spence. His platform was restor-ing the government's attention to working and middle-income families. Then-Gov. Jimmy Carter even came over from Georgia to campaign for Perry.

He was soundly defeated.

Two years later, Thurmond nominated Perry to the U.S. Military Court of Appeals, making him the second black man with that distinction. Not long afterward, there was speculation in the press that Perry was in as good a position as anyone for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. That was not to be.

In 1979, Hollings, then a U.S. senator, nominated Perry for a federal judgeship that would return him to Colum-bia. Though he'd lived in Washington three years, Perry still had South Carolina plates on his car.

""He never liked Washington much,"" The State's Lee Bandy wrote, ""although he and his wife enjoyed the capital's fine restaurants as well as the cultural events at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.""

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.

Perry sat alon

Published in The State on July 31, 2011
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