Civil rights pioneer and judicial leader, U.S. District Judge Matthew Perry died Sunday at the age of 89, only four days shy of his 90th birthday.
In 1979, Perry became one of the first African-Americans in the Deep South to sit on the federal bench. University of South Carolina Law Professor Lewis Burke calls Perry the most influential lawyer in the history of South Carolina, taking into account the influence his early career as a civil rights attorney. Perry’s role in transforming the state started with the landmark Briggs v. Elliott case in 1952. He also led a major South Carolina reapportionment case in 1972.
Perry was in private practice in Spartanburg from 1951 to 1961, and in Columbia from 1961 to 1976. In 1976, President Gerald Ford appointed Perry to the United States Military Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Three years later, he was nominated to the U.S. District Court by President Carter in 1979.
Burke says Perry also served as lead attorney in the 1963 Edwards v. South Carolina case that defined peaceful assembly protests on public grounds.
Having carved out a career as an outstanding and influential defense attorney, Burke says Perry proved to have the perfect temperament to sit on the bench and that he was a natural and talented communicator who had the ability to use the right tone in his arguments during a case and in his rulings as a judge. He said that included the judicious use of humor when he thought it was warranted.