As a lawyer, Judge Matthew J. Perry was heavily involved in many important, precedent-setting civil rights cases. He argued before the United States Supreme Court multiple times, and lost only one case there. He became the first African American federal judge from South Carolina, and is remembered for his civility and respectful nature both in the courtroom and out, even while pursuing divisive and conflict-ridden issues. In his extensive, 184 page oral history he discusses his early life, education, and career as a lawyer. Dr. Robert J. Moore conducted the interview; he is a historian, contributor to Judge Perry’s biography, and was a personal friend of the judge and his wife, Hallie. Perry was a part of the second graduating class of 1951 at the South Carolina State Law School, which was established to comply with the “separate but equal” law as it was at the time, after South Carolina was given the choice of establishing a law school for African Americans, admitting them to USC Law, or closing USC Law. While in law school the law required him to sit in the balcony at the courthouse; the federal courthouse in Columbia is now named for him.
There were few African American lawyers in South Carolina at the time, and Perry tells a particularly moving story about starting out as the only African American lawyer in Spartanburg in the early 50’s. There was a general practice of lawyers gathering at the front of the courtroom on the first day of a new session of court, and one morning they were gathered and were all socializing and chatting amongst themselves, and with the judge, before court started. When Perry arrived, no one spoke to him, the only acknowledgement he received was being looked at “as if [he] was some kind of fool” for going up to the front of the courtroom. He describes how badly it made him feel to be ignored and left out, but that he had vowed never to let that show. When the then mayor of Spartanburg, Tom Whiteside arrived, Judge Perry says that it was “as if one of the major stars had walked into the courtroom,” and right away he came over to Perry and shook his hand, in what is described as a very kind and reassuring gesture.
Another anecdote from his days as a young lawyer involves meeting a judge for the first time after having communicated about a case via mail and telephone. They had arranged a meeting, and the judge said he would take Perry to lunch afterwards. This judge evidently was not aware of Perry’s race, and when they met he was so surprised that he inhaled his partially smoked cigar, and it became temporarily lodged in his throat. The lunch was not mentioned. Judge Perry tells this story in an amusing way; it is a testament to his character that he is able to look back with humor on certain incidents in a more lighthearted way, even while these same incidents serve to highlight the racial injustices he endured. He looks back on even some of the cruelest incidents with a huge degree of reason, logic, and awareness; and with a complete lack of bitterness or hatred.
Judge Perry discusses in detail his various United States Supreme Court appearances. His first Supreme Court case was a death penalty case, and it was the only case he lost there. This took place in 1960, when he was still a relatively new lawyer, and appealing a case to the U.S. Supreme Court was an unfamiliar and daunting prospect. After the Court took the case, Perry asked Thurgood Marshall to argue the case for him, but he responded “You filed it and they granted it, now you argue it.” Perry describes his extensive preparations for the case: packing a hundred volumes of books on Supreme Court practice in the trunk of the car to take to Washington, reading every Supreme Court death penalty case he could find, virtually memorizing the trial transcript, and staying up all night before the argument reading and studying, unable to sleep from excitement or nervousness. It is intriguing to know that even someone so accomplished, and with such a long and illustrious legal career, was nervous going before the Supreme Court the first time, and to hear him reminisce about the experience first-hand.
Judge Perry represented Harvey Gantt in the case to integrate Clemson in 1963, and he accompanied Gantt to campus to enroll and remained friends with him; this case as well as the actual process of integrating Clemson are both discussed in detail in the interview. When asked what he considers to have been his biggest case, in terms of social impact, Perry points to several cases. Stevenson v. West was a United States Supreme Court case which reapportioned the South Carolina House of Representatives into single-member districts, making the process fairer, and making it possible for African Americans gain more representation in the state legislature. In another case, Brown v. South Carolina Board of Education, Perry blocked a plan to give parents state money to send their children to private schools, which would have resulted in continued segregation. Perry said “we think we saved the public schools of South Carolina through that lawsuit.” In State v. Edwards, 187 protesters were arrested for disturbing the peace while marching at the South Carolina State House. They were not being rowdy, and were in a location where they were lawfully allowed to be, and were not blocking traffic or interfering with any government function. Perry argued this case before the United States Supreme Court, where the convictions were reversed on First Amendment grounds. The precedent set in that case and other cases he pursued resulted in the reversals of convictions of thousands of people around the country. Eventually, Perry built up a reputation such that sometimes merely writing a letter or threatening to sue would get the opposition to go ahead and change its discriminatory policy.
Judge Perry faced opposition from many South Carolina lawmakers, as well as citizens, on the issue of civil rights. However, he fostered what he describes as a good working relationship and gained the respect of many people whose job descriptions included enforcing segregation, as it was the law at the time. Perry does not speak ill of anyone, even those who were ardently opposed to and actively fighting against civil rights and integration. A federal judge wrote in an essay for Perry’s biography, “he is the only militant civil rights figure I know who seems to be loved by both racial groups while still engaged in the struggle.” When Perry was nominated for federal judgeships, first at the United States Court of Military Appeals, and then to the United States District Court, he mentions that many of the people he had opposed through the years wrote letters, presumably to the Senate, praising him professionally. This is mentioned simply in passing, but seems to speak a great deal to his professionalism, civility, and integrity.
To learn more about Judge Matthew J. Perry, check out his oral history here.
Contributed by graduate student assistant Mary Kennington Steele