Friday, August 5, 2011

In Memoriam: Honorable Matthew J. Perry, Civil Rights Lawyer

The New York Times published the obituary of Judge Matthew J. Perry today.  Perry, the first African American appointed to the federal bench in South Carolina, is one of the twentieth century's lesser-known, but no less heroic, civil rights lawyers. Here are a few excerpts from the Times' obituary.

Matthew J. Perry Jr., who as a young lawyer had to wait in the balcony of his segregated local courthouse before a judge would hear his case, then went on to win hundreds of civil rights legal battles and to become the first black federal judge from the Deep South, died on July 29 at his home in Columbia, S.C. ...  In the 1950s and ’60s, Judge Perry handled cases for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that resulted in the desegregation of schools, colleges, hospitals, parks, golf courses, restaurants and beaches. He won rulings by the United States Supreme Court that overturned the convictions of more than 7,000 people involved in sit-ins.The Harvard Law School professor Randall L. Kennedy said Judge Perry “helped create federal law that enlarged our liberty.” The judge’s cases, he said, are taught “in every law school across the United States.”Morris Rosen, who years earlier unsuccessfully defended the city of Charleston, S.C., in a lawsuit brought by Mr. Perry, put it more simply: “He beat the hell out of me.”
The judge's fascinating life is discussed in an edited collection by William Lewis Burke and Belinda Gerge, Matthew J. Perry: The Man, His Times, and His Legacy (USC, 2004). The book includes chapters on Judge Perry's background and the socio-legal environment in which he made civil rights law. Here is the publisher's description of the book.

In this volume, scholars of the civil rights era, fellow civil rights activists, jurists, attorneys, a governor, and an award-winning photojournalist join together to produce a multilayered biography of Matthew J. Perry. Collectively they bring to light the remarkable achievements of a man well known in his home state but sometimes obscured on the national stage by the shadows of Thurgood Marshall, J. Waties Waring, and Charles Hamilton Houston. This volume tells the story of Perry's life, including his humble beginnings in Columbia, his service to the nation during wartime, his remarkable career as a creator of positive social change, and, finally, his achievements as a respected member of the federal judiciary. The contributors describe Perry’s courage, skills as an orator, quick legal mind, and genteel nature. They set his story in the turbulent civil–rights–era South, revealing how broad social, historical, and legal issues affected Perry’s life and shaped the trajectory of his activist and professional life. The volume underscores how Perry enabled his home state to escape from Jim Crow's clutches with much less turmoil than many of its neighbors. Published in concert with the dedication of the Matthew J. Perry, Jr. United States Courthouse in Columbia, South Carolina, this life story portrays an esteemed juror whose grace and resiliency led South Carolina into the twentieth century.