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Matthew Perry: Greatness with words, not fists

Matthew Perry - lawyer for the NAACP and World War II veteran - strode into Rock Hill city court on a cold morning in 1960.

Without throwing a punch, he smacked old Jim Crow right in the gut.

He slayed with words.

Powerful words, just as the words "land of the free" in the "Star Spangled Banner," are powerful - and those words were the reason Perry was in Rock Hill in the first place.

Perry died Sunday at his Columbia home. He was 89.

Exactly 70 young blacks, almost all of them Friendship Junior College students, were arrested March 15, 1960, at a segregated drug store, both segregated bus stations and in front of segregated City Hall.

Their arrests for breach of peace and trespassing came six weeks after sit-ins started in the city, and the beginning of arrests of blacks who wanted only to eat, drink, wash and live alongside whites.

Their crime was song. Hymns and the national anthem, sung for all to hear. These blacks singing about freedom certainly had to be illegal.

The city courts picked a test case instead of having dozens of trials.

Perry arrived from Spartanburg at night on March 23, 1960, and he had to sleep on somebody's couch because no hotel would rent a room to a black man in Rock Hill.

This black lawyer who represented 70 black civil rights protesters was not welcomed to Rock Hill with ribbons or parades - as places would furnish decades later when Perry was a federal judge.

No, in 1960, to white Rock Hill, Perry was just "a negro lawyer from Spartanburg." To black Rock Hill, he was a hero without sword or shield. He carried only law books and dignity.

"The civil rights lawyer of our time," said Jim Wells, a retired lawyer who ought to know. Wells was jailed a year later, in 1961, at age 19, for the crime of being black and wanting to eat with whites in Rock Hill.

That experience of the Friendship Nine helped push Wells to law school and later to work for and with Matthew Perry.

Matthew Perry was not just a lawyer for young men like Wells and fellow Friendship Nine protester John Gaines, who clerked for Perry and became a civil rights lawyer himself.

These young men dreamed of the law and equality, and Matthew Perry was their titan.

But in 1960, Perry arrived to be the lawyer for Leroy Henry, the test case, a man charged with the heinous crime of being black while singing the "Star Spangled Banner" in front of City Hall, where whites worked and got justice for their problems.

Worse, Rock Hill's whites in that same City Hall just days after the arrests, those city leaders hailed forever as visionaries of flora and architecture and future, were so filled with vision that they plain tried to make gatherings and protests by blacks illegal.

In the courtroom audience on March 24 were Abe Plummer and Martin Leroy Johnson, two of the protest ringleaders also arrested and waiting for their own trials.

All of 19 years old, they were told they were criminals for singing and sitting in a white waiting room - no matter that they were honor students and officers of their class and wore suits.

And into court comes Perry, with his soft voice and law books and black skin just like theirs.

"He was so good, we thought we might win," Johnson told me once, about Perry. Johnson later became the mathematics professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. Plummer would become the superintendent of two school systems.

But a white judge who listened to a white prosecutor defending segregation found Leroy Henry guilty. Perry vowed to appeal.

Some of those appeals, added together over years, helped end segregation.

Matthew Perry told a court of law that day in 1960 that segregation was wrong and that blacks had the same rights as whites to try to right that wrong.

With those words, segregation, that tottering old monster covered with warts, started to die a little bit more in the South and America the day Matthew Perry came to Rock Hill.

"He was my mentor," said Wells, "and above all, he was a great man for all people in South Carolina - black and white."

But in 1960, Perry could only be great for blacks - Most whites didn't realize that Perry was being great for them, too, by chipping away at a society that was separate and unjust.

"Perry was a force for equality," said Dr. Horace Goggins, secretary of the Rock Hill NAACP in 1960. "Brilliant, well-spoken, quiet with his words. We knew he was destined for greatness."

Matthew Perry would be the first black federal judge in the South. The federal courthouse in Columbia is named for him. There is a bronze statue outside that courthouse of a black man, wearing glasses as Perry always wore, smiling.

Perry does not leave a legacy. He leaves a destroyer's wake.


Perry's funeral will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia.