A Life of Service To Civil Rights and South Carolina

From The State:

By MARK E. LETT–Tuesday, Aug. 02, 2011

Nobody can remember seeing Matthew Perry angry.

Determined? Always. Fearless? No question. Forceful and firm? Without a doubt.

Kind, compassionate and respectful? Without fail.

But never angry. Never bitter.

Perry’s remarkable temperament — and unmatched legal skills — were essential to the relatively peaceful progress of civil rights in South Carolina during the turbulent 1960s and beyond. While the state endured pain and tragedy in those days, South Carolina advanced with “far less turmoil than her neighbors,” Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr. wrote in a 2004 tribute to Perry.

Judges, lawyers, civil rights activists and historians say Perry combined civility with tenacity as a civil rights lawyer to help calm the Palmetto State and build trust among all involved, from street protesters to law enforcement officials to college presidents and governors.

The 89-year-old Perry, who died over the weekend at his Columbia home, was “a Southern gentleman of the first order,” Anderson said in an interview last month. “His style was different than some civil rights leaders at the time, but he got the results he wanted.”

‘The lawyers’ lawyer’

Perry’s legal career spanned six decades and included landmark cases that reached deep into life in South Carolina. His courtroom prowess opened public schools and universities to African-American students, cleared the way for blacks to live where they chose and sit where they pleased on city buses, and enabled black golfers to play public courses. Along the way, Perry and a cadre of black lawyers persuaded juries and judges to rethink how the U.S. Constitution was interpreted, expanding rights of free speech, freedom of assembly, due process and equal protection.

As a lawyer and a judge, Perry was a leader among those who used the law as a tool for social justice. Ernest A. Finney Jr., the first African-American on the S.C. Supreme Court, said Perry, attorney for the state NAACP for a time, was a sounding board and strategic partner to attorneys pressing civil rights cases across the state during the 1960s and later.

“He was the leader. He was the lawyers’ lawyer,” said Finney. “We didn’t go around the corner without conferring with Matthew.”

From that point forward, Finney said, he referred to Perry as “chief counsel — even when we went to lunch.”

In Perry, establishment officials found a relentless opponent but also a problem-solver willing to work collaboratively to produce solutions. A bulldog in the courtroom who used tireless preparation to overwhelm opponents, Perry had the skills of an ambassador in working behind the scenes to seek justice for his clients and others.

“These were big, high-profile cases — the desegregation of Clemson and the University of South Carolina,” said W. Lewis Burke, a professor of law at USC. “Those events were very peaceful, and there were no problems, nothing happened. It was such a contrast with what happened in Alabama, and the horrendous stuff involving desegregation and integration in Mississippi.”

Anderson said former Clemson President R.C. Edwards gave credit to Perry for guiding the incident-free 1963 enrollment of Harvey Gantt as Clemson’s first black student. “Dr. Edwards told me that Matthew Perry’s gentle personality and character were the ingredients that made it possible to happen without bloodshed,” Anderson said.

Despite being forced to admit Gantt, Clemson officials were so impressed with Perry that they subsequently hired him to represent the school when it ran afoul of the NCAA for sports infractions. Being hired by an opponent you previously battled in court, Anderson said, “is the ultimate compliment” for a lawyer.

Gantt, a Charleston native, went on to become an architect and, for a time, mayor of Charlotte. Perry became the first federal judge from the Deep South and had the distinction of being appointed to the bench first by a Republican president — Gerald Ford — and, later, by a Democrat — Jimmy Carter.

Perry’s ability to gain the confidence of friends and foes was a potent asset, according to U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel. State leaders met privately with Perry to safely enroll Gantt at Clemson “to facilitate how to integrate Clemson without tumultuous reaction, meticulously planning the process with Matthew Perry’s cooperation,” Gergel said.

At other times, Perry would work with protesters in advance of events to spell out tactics for making their case publicly without stepping outside the law. On occasion, Perry would select impressive individuals to take the lead in such protests. If arrested, those chosen made effective, articulate defendants.

Among those was U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, whose mother took a youthful Clyburn to a Sumter courthouse to see Perry argue a case.

“She wanted me to see what I could be when I grew up,” Clyburn recalled. “Matthew Perry really electrified that courtroom and left people all over town talking about him.”

Some years later, Perry and Clyburn crossed paths in Orangeburg, where Clyburn was arrested in a sit-in and Perry was dispatched by the NAACP to represent protesters.

“We became fast friends,” Clyburn said, “He always was calling me his star witness. It had nothing to do with me. I was picked because my mother was a beautician and my father was a minister.”

‘The law will prevail’

In an interview with The State the day before he died, Perry recalled how he worked quietly with law enforcement leaders during the 1960s to protect civil rights protesters and his family. While little was revealed publicly, Perry and his family were frequent targets of those upset with his activism and success.

“Yes, there were threats by telephone and by mail, and there were people who called and mentioned to my wife that they were going to ‘get me’ as I came out of a courthouse on this or that day,” Perry said. “And there was, of course, a cross burning when I still lived in Spartanburg, just before I returned home to Columbia. It was the spirit of the times.”

Over time, Perry and law enforcement officials began to work without fanfare to keep the peace in the midst of racial tension. Among Perry’s back-channel contacts was J.P. Strom, the state’s “top cop” who headed the State Law Enforcement Division for more than three decades.

“We were adversaries through our early association,” Perry said. “But he developed tolerance, you might say, and he assured my wife that no harm would come to me. There were times when I would go into a community and SLED would know I was going in. And, of course, there would be law enforcement agents there undercover. I was encouraged to be aware of their presence but not be overly friendly. They were monitoring the situation and would see that no harm came to us.”

Perry’s style as a litigator and advocate was resolute, dignified, strategic — and inexhaustible. As a young black lawyer facing all-white juries and judges, he learned to accept defeat at the trial level while building a record to support his case when appealed to higher courts, where he often won and established significant precedents. Patience and determination were key elements in his approach, often in contrast to lawyers who preferred a louder, bolder approach.

“In life you come to realize that there are some things that you can change and some that you cannot change, at least not immediately; and one of them happens to be racial attitudes,” Perry said in an interview with Columbia College history professor Robert Moore for a 2004 article.

In a conversation with The State last month, Perry acknowledged the phrase “at least not immediately” was key to his thinking. The goal always, he said, was “insist upon the enforcement of rights.”

“To the extent that an immediate response could be gained, so be it. But, of course, going through the courts and seeking legal remedies can be time consuming and is not a quick as desired, overnight remedies.”

Perry did not get angry. He got even. Or at least he got justice.

“He wouldn’t shout but was firm,” Gergel said. “I have seen lawyers who would mistake his gentlemanly manner for weakness only to feel the Matthew Perry bear trap clap on their leg.”

Columbia attorney Hemphill Pride, who as a young lawyer worked with Perry and the late Lincoln C. Jenkins in a Washington Street law office, said he was awestruck by Perry’s restraint and the “demeanor he possessed in court, especially when I saw the indignities he suffered from white judges and white lawyers.”

Over time, though, Perry’s skills, persistence and demeanor would wear adversaries down, Pride said.

“Ultimately, even if they didn’t like him, they had to respect him because of his deportment. It was something to see,” Pride said.

Zoe Sanders, a Columbia attorney, learned first-hand about Perry’s belief that justice, eventually, will be served. Sanders had been a lawyer for a time when she became a clerk to District Judge Perry in 1995. At the time, Sanders was despondent after losing a murder trial in which she defended a wife who had been a battered spouse.

“I was terribly low, and I asked Judge Perry how he had been able to keep going with all that had happened to him throughout the civil rights movement,” Sanders said. “We would sit and talk for a long time. He was a great teacher, very patient. He said, ‘You just have to keep trying and know that the law will prevail over time.’ The conviction, in fact, was eventually overturned.”

‘As far as attitudes …’

In discussing his career and the progress of civil rights during his lifetime, Perry last month told The State he was proud of “court action that has brought the courts to apply the Constitution to the concept of civil rights and how laws are implemented and enforced.”

Outside the courtroom, however, Perry still had concerns.

“Now, as far as racial attitudes are concerned, you have them all across the spectrum,” he said. “You have some people willing to accommodate other people, and you have others who judge others solely on the basis of race and color.

“In the areas of employment, of course, racial practices still stymie the progress of blacks in many fields, and yet there are blacks who have risen to levels in society that were unimaginable when I was a young person.

“And, so, we have come a long way to address many problems and many of the legal facets have been dealt with. But, as far as attitudes of people, there is still very much a problem among us.”

Perry made the comments with no visible discouragement or anger. As with his own life, he exuded the belief that people of good intent will make progress, given time and commitment.

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