July 29, 2021 marks the ten (10) year anniversary of the passing of the Honorable Matthew J. Perry, Jr., lawyer, civil rights pioneer, and South Carolina’s first African-American United States District Court Judge.

As a young man, Judge Perry attended Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, served in the United States Army during World War II, and earned a law degree from South Carolina State College in 1951. During the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Perry developed a reputation as a young, unflappable attorney and eventually became a champion of the underserved and disadvantaged. He was never discouraged by the turbulent times or his formidable opponents, and was often referred to endearingly as the “Thurgood Marshall of the South.”

Developing a passion for civil rights causes, Judge Perry aspired to change the law in areas affecting basic human and civil rights, racial injustices, and equal opportunities. Through sheer determination and persuasive voice of reason, Judge Perry accomplished results that many believed were impossible including the desegregation and integration of South Carolina’s public schools, colleges, hospitals, state parks, golf courses, restaurants, and beaches. These and other courageous legal victories at the state, regional, and even national level provided impacted citizens with a newfound sense of freedom and equality.

Although he participated in thousands of cases, Judge Perry is probably most known for the following: his representation of Harvey Gantt to gain admission as the first African-American student at Clemson University in 1963; his representation also in 1963 of James Solomon and Henri Monteith in gaining admission as the first African-American students at the University of South Carolina in the twentieth century; his 1974 voting rights lawsuit against the South Carolina General Assembly, which resulted in the creation of single-member districts and an end to the at-large election of legislators; and for serving as the trial lawyer in some of the most significant United States Supreme Court cases of the modern civil rights era, including Edwards v. South Carolina, which established broad legal protections for civil rights marchers, and Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, one of the earliest interpretations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford appointed Judge Perry to a newly-created seat on the United States Court of Military Appeals (now known as the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces) in Washington, D.C., where he served until 1979. With this appointment, Perry became the first African-American lawyer from the Deep South to be appointed to a federal bench. A few years later, on July 5, 1979, Judge Perry became South Carolina’s first African-American federal district judge when President Jimmy Carter appointed Judge Perry to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.

In his role as a judge, Judge Perry exhibited the traits of a consummate gentleman and temperate jurist. He always approached each case as if it were his only one. He truly cared that all persons and entities were treated equally in the eyes of the law and presided over proceedings deliberately to ensure that every litigant and lawyer before him felt respected.

Judge Matthew J. Perry, Jr. (1921-2011) influenced the lives of many generations. Whether arguing before the court or adjudicating from the bench, Judge Perry devoted his life to the pursuit of equality for all persons.

Video: Library of Congress- Matthew J. Perry oral history interview by Joseph Mosnier