Matthew J. Perry

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For other people with the same name, see Matthew Perry (disambiguation).

Matthew James Perry Jr. (August 4, 1921 – July 29, 2011) was an attorney and in 1979 appointed as the first African-American United States federal judge in South Carolina. In 1976 he had been the first African-American attorney from the Deep South to be appointed to the federal judiciary, which he served in the Military Appeals Court.

He established his career with civil rights litigation, defending Gloria Blackwell in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in her 1962 suit against her arrest for sitting in the whites-only area of the regional hospital while waiting for emergency treatment for her daughter. Other landmark cases included achieving the integration of Clemson University and reapportionment of the state legislature.

Early life, military service, education and career[edit]

Born in Columbia, South Carolina, Perry attended local segregated schools and started college studying business. He served during World War II in the United States Army from 1943 to 1946. He finished college after the war, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree from South Carolina State College in 1948. He went on to earn a law degree (LL.B.) from South Carolina State College in 1951. He was in private practice in Spartanburg, South Carolina from 1951 to 1961.

Civil rights activism[edit]

Moving to the state capital of Columbia, South Carolina, Perry was in private practice from 1961 to 1976. He built his reputation as a civil rights attorney in the 1960s. When finishing his undergraduate degree after WWII, Perry concluded that he needed to learn and practice law, due to "a growing awareness of racial injustices, many of them manifested by state laws.”[1]

He gained notoriety by representing Gloria Blackwell, an African-American teacher in Orangeburg, South Carolina, who was arrested with her daughter Lurma Rackley for sitting in a “whites only” waiting room while awaiting emergency treatment for the girl. Perry insisted that he be allowed to build the case around racial discrimination. He was charged with contempt and briefly jailed for making what the court deemed to be “remarks disrespectful to the court.”[1][2][3] The case against Blackwell was eventually dismissed by the court, and the hospital was integrated thanks in part to Perry's efforts.

Perry led the successful court case in 1963 for Harvey B. Gantt to integrate Clemson University. Gantt successfully enrolled and graduated, the first African-American student to enroll at the formerly all-white institution. Perry also led a major South Carolina reapportionment case in 1972, to require redistricting in order to more fairly represent urban areas in relation to their population, based on the "one man, one vote" principle. Numerous state legislatures had not redistricted since the beginning of the 20th century, although required to review apportionment after every decennial census.

Perry ran for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1974, but lost to Republican incumbent Floyd Spence.

Chief United States District Judge Joseph Anderson once wrote "to say that Matthew Perry was good in the courtroom is like saying Mickey Mantle knew how to swing a bat . . . Aristotle taught that lawyers and judges should be the very personification of justice. Matthew J. Perry Jr. comes as close as any person I have known to meeting Aristotle's ideal." [1] Perry led many landmark civil rights cases, including the case that resulted in the integration of Clemson University through the Perry won the case that forced Clemson University administrators to accept and enroll African-American students.

He managed to win over everyone he came across in the process of litigation, including opponents. Former Clemson President Robert Cook Edwards stated that “Matthew Perry’s gentle personality and character were the ingredients that made it (the peaceful integration of Clemson) possible to happen without bloodshed.” [4]

Perry was the first African American lawyer from the Deep South to be appointed to the federal judiciary. In 1976, President Gerald Ford appointed Perry to the United States Military Court of Appeals (now the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces) in Washington, D.C. Perry's nomination was even supported by Senator Strom Thurmond, known as a segregationist and Dixiecrat.[5]

On July 5, 1979, Perry was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to a new seat on the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, created by 92 Stat. 1629. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 19, 1979, and received his commission the following day. He was the first African-American federal judge in south Carolina. He assumed senior status on October 1, 1995 and continued to be active at court.

Perry was found dead, aged 89, at his home on Sunday July 31, 2011 by a family member. His wife Hallie was reportedly in poor health. He was reported to have died on Friday after attending court that day.[6]


  • 2004, a new federal courthouse in Columbia, South Carolina was named for him.[6]



  1. ^ a b c Wallace, Allen: "Remembering a Legend: Judge Matthew Perry," WLTX- Columbia, SC
  2. ^ Carolyn Click, "Orangeburg civil rights icon, and Claflin alumna Dr. Gloria Rackley Blackwell dies", Claflin University (December 10, 2010). Retrieved June 2, 2011
  3. ^ Richard Reid, "The Gloria Rackley-Blackwell story" The Times and Democrat, (February 22, 2011). Retrieved June 3, 2011
  4. ^ Lett, Mark. "A Life of Service To Civil Rights and South Carolina," SC Justice Watch. N.p., 2 Aug 2011.
  5. ^ Bass, Jack and Marilyn W. Thompson. Ol' Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1998, pp. 281-282.
  6. ^ a b Dawn Hinshaw (1 August 2011). "S.C. mourns death of civil rights 'giant'". The Herald.