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

08/01/2011 12:00 AM

07/31/2011 11:59 PM

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 natural 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 serving 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 enemies even as he compelled resistant whites to open public parks and university classrooms to black South Carolinians.

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.

In 2004, a new federal courthouse was given his name.

During his life, Perry's name was linked with luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Harvey Gantt and Jimmy Carter.

His later years were spent poring over cases at the courthouse, where his name is etched over the expansive entrance; working on an autobiography; and, as he'd always done, speaking to civic groups about life and the law.

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.

"I would like to see an improved quality of life for citizens around the state," he said. "I am very much concerned about those who remain uneducated and who are impoverished, living at the edge of society.

"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, waiting for the fall semester to resume at S.C. State in Orangeburg.

Before the war, Perry had studied business administration.

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 in S.C. 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 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.

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