CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – Matthew J. Perry Jr., South Carolina’s first African-American federal judge, has died at 89. As a young attorney, Perry tried several cases that led to the integration of South Carolina beaches, parks, restaurants and public schools.
His legal prowess was instrumental in gaining the release of as many as 7,000 people arrested at sit-in protests during the Civil Rights era.
In 1963, he won the case that forced Clemson University to admit African-American students.
After being forced to admit Harvey Gantt, a Charleston native who went on to serve as mayor of Charlotte, N.C., Clemson officials were so impressed with Perry’s abilities and character that they hired him to represent the school when it ran afoul of the NCAA for sports infractions.
Born into segregation, Perry worked his way through South Carolina State College – from which he earned a business degree – and S.C. State law school. He went on to become South Carolina’s pre-eminent civil rights attorney.
Perry was credited with helping South Carolina achieve peaceful progress in civil rights with “far less turmoil than her neighbors” during the turbulent 1960s, Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr. said in a 2004 tribute to Perry.
Last month Anderson reiterated his admiration for Perry, telling reporters from The State newspaper that his longtime friend was “a Southern gentleman of the first order.”
In an interview with The State last week, Perry recalled how he worked quietly with law enforcement during the 1960s to protect civil rights protesters and his family. While little was revealed publicly, Perry and his family were frequent targets.
“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 told The State. “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.”
In 1975, he became the first federal judge from the Deep South – presiding over the U.S. Military Court of Appeals. He was appointed to the bench first by a Republican president, Gerald Ford, and later by a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who appointed him to the federal bench for South Carolina in 1979.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton named the Federal Courthouse in Columbia in Perry’s honor. The $30.1 million Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse was dedicated in 2004.
At his death, Perry was serving as a senior U.S. District Court judge, working every weekday in the courthouse named for him.
His body was found at his home Sunday morning by a family friend.
Gov. Nikki Haley has ordered flags at the State House to be flown a half staff on Thursday, the day his funeral will be held at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia.
The funeral home is working with the U.S. Marshals Service to ensure security at the church, which seats 3,500. Perry’s home church, Zion Baptist, could not seat the anticipated crowd.
The funeral is expected to draw hundreds of mourners, including federal judges from across the country, lawyers and judges in South Carolina, current and former law clerks and his many clients, who were involved in the civil rights movement of 1950s and 1960s.