Remembering a Legend: Judge Matthew Perry

9:51 PM, Jul 31, 2011   |    comments
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Columbia, SC (WLTX) -- South Carolina has lost a legend, and a man who made this state and this country a better place. Federal Judge Matthew J. Perry died Sunday at the age of 89. Perry was a war veteran, a civil rights leader, and a genuine American hero. His long list of accomplishments includes becoming the first African-American appointed to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.

Judge Perry was born in Columbia in 1921, in an age of segregation and Jim Crow laws that limited his rights because of the color of his skin. He never let it stand in his way. He served his country in World War II, spending 1943-1946 in the Army before earning Bachelor of Science and then Bachelor of Laws degrees from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, the place that would later be the scene of one of his greatest victories. He once said that "a growing awareness of racial injustices, many of them manifested by state laws, led me to conclude that I needed to learn and practice law." He opened private practice first in Spartanburg and then in Columbia, moving to the capital in 1961, at the height of the civil rights movement.

Perry came to the forefront of that movement in South Carolina when he agreed to defend Gloria Blackwell. Blackwell, an African-American woman, was arrested in an Orangeburg hospital in 1961 for sitting in a "whites only" waiting room after bringing her daughter to the emergency room. Perry himself was jailed after being accused of making "remarks disrespectful to the court" when he insisted he be allowed to build his case around discrimination. The case against Blackwell was later dismissed and the hospital was integrated.

Perry also led the court battle to integrate Clemson University in 1963, and again succeeded. Years later, in the introduction to a collection of essays about Perry, Chief United States District Judge Joseph Anderson would write "To say that Matthew Perry was good in the courtroom is like saying Mickey Mantle knew how to swing a bat." Anderson went on to write "Aristotle taught that lawyers and judges should be the very personification of justice. Matthew J. Perry Jr. comes as close as any person I have known to meeting Aristotle's ideal." You can find that book by clicking here.

The later years of Perry's life brought one honor after another. President Ford appointed him to the United States Military Court of Appeals, and then came President Carter's choice of Perry for the U.S. District Court.  The long list of other awards for Judge Perry includes honorary degrees including Doctor of Laws from South Carolina State, USC and Voorhees and Doctor of Humanities from Francis Marion and Lander, the Order of the Palmetto, the Distinguished Alumnus Award from South Carolina State, the South Carolinian of the Year, the William R. Ming Advocacy Award, and the Distinguished Native Son Award from the NAACP. The federal courthouse in Columbia bears Perry's name.

Consider that for a moment: a man born into a society that said he was something less than a person because of the color of his skin leaves his name on a federal courthouse in the state where he spent most of his life fighting for freedom. He was everything an American should be. The world is a poorer place today because Judge Matthew Perry is gone, but a far, far richer one because he lived.

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