Matthew James Perry Jr. first made history by becoming the first federally-appointed judge from the Deep South in 1976. Three years later, he was appointed South Carolina’s first African-American federal judge.
Perry was born August 3, 1921, although some records and accounts show August 4 as his birthday. Perry was raised in Columbia, S.C., and attended what is now known as South Carolina State University. After serving in the Army during World War II, Perry completed his studies at the college and earned his undergraduate and law degrees in 1948 and 1951 respectively.
Perry then opened a practice in the town of Spartanburg, taking on the first of his many civil rights cases in 1956. Perry represented Sarah Mae Flemming in the case of “Flemming v. South Carolina Electric and Gas Co.,” a lawsuit brought by Perry after Ms. Flemming was struck by a bus driver for not moving to the back of a bus in South Carolina.
In 1961, Perry was named the State Counsel for the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP. In his time there, Perry was part of the legal team that oversaw the integration of Clemson University in 1963 after student Harvey Gantt was denied entry into the school.
Perry’s work was focused on the racial integration of his home state at almost every level including schools, workplaces and hospitals. Perry tried over 6,000 cases and his work led to the release of 7,000 people who were arrested for protesting the stiff Jim Crow laws in the state.
In 1976, Perry was named to serve on the bench for the U.S. Military Court of Appeals. In 1979, he was named as a federal district judge for the U.S. District Court of South Carolina.
In 2004, the U.S. Courthouse in Columbia was named after Perry behind the efforts of South Carolina congressman James Clyburn. This was one of several awards given to Perry, which also include being named South Carolinian of the Year, the Thurgood Marshall Award, and the Order of the Palmetto, among others.
Judge Perry passed in July 2011.