Matthew James Perry Jr. spent the first 25 years of his professional life defending people's civil rights and the second 35 sitting on the bench, a testament to the uplifting changes that his work helped bring about.
A native of Columbia and graduate of South Carolina State University's short-lived law school, Judge Perry is associated with some seminal chapters in the book of civil rights.
He represented Burke High School graduate Harvey Gantt, who became the first black student to attend Clemson University.
He represented Gloria Blackwell and her daughter Lurma Rackley in a prominent case of racial discrimination during the Orangeburg Freedom Movement. And he represented students in sit-ins protesting segregation in Charleston. His work as a lawyer helped open the Statehouse to blacks and led to single-member House districts.
He made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Floyd Spence.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford appointed Matthew Perry to the U.S. Military Court of Appeals (now the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces) in Washington, D.C. Then in 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated him to be the first black federal judge in South Carolina.
As a lawyer, he is remembered for his courage and selfless commitment to the cause of civil rights. As a judge, he is remembered as being wise, kind and even-tempered.
And as a person, he is remembered with reverence and respect by people on both sides of the racial divide that he worked to eliminate.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, pastor of Morris Brown AME Church and first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP, said of Judge Perry, who died Friday in Columbia, "He very quietly and carefully changed not only South Carolina but America. He was a class act."
And Judge Richard E. Fields, Judge Perry's contemporary and a fellow barrier breaker (Judge Fields was the first black municipal judge in the Southeast as well as a judge on the Family Court and Circuit Court) said Matthew Perry, with grace, humility and respect, opened doors that had not been opened before.
In 2004, the new federal courthouse in Columbia was named for him, a reminder for all who enter of the virtues of courage, kindness and wisdom in the pursuit of what is good.
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