Lawyer, jurist, civil rights activist. Perry was born in Columbia on August 3, 1921, the son of Matthew Perry and Jennie Lyles. Because of a disabling respiratory illness his father acquired during his service in World War I, Perry divided his early childhood between Columbia and Tuskegee, Alabama, where his father was treated at a Veterans Administration hospital. After his father’s death when he was twelve, Perry was raised by his maternal grandfather, William Lyles, in Columbia while his mother sought to support the family as a seamstress in New York. Perry graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, where he was heavily influenced by the school’s principal J. Andrew Simmons.
After service in the United States Army (1943–1946), during which he once observed white American soldiers and Italian prisoners of war eating together in a railroad depot restaurant from which black soldiers were excluded, Perry resolved to study law as a means of combating racial injustice. He graduated from South Carolina State College with a B.S. in 1948 and was in the first graduating class of the South Carolina State Law School in 1951.
Perry married Hallie Bacote of Timmonsville in 1948, and they moved to Spartanburg in 1951 to open a law office. Perry devoted most of his efforts to the emerging and nonremunerative civil rights struggle, while the family was supported primarily by his wife’s teaching salary. After practicing for a decade in Spartanburg, he returned to Columbia in 1961 to open a law office and assume the position of chief counsel of the South Carolina Conference of Branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). From this position, which Perry held for fifteen years, he directed the civil rights movement’s legal assault on segregation in South Carolina. He supervised various NAACP counsel within the state and worked closely with the NAACP’s national legal counsel, including Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, and Jack Greenberg.
Perry’s most notable cases included his representation of Harvey Gantt in his admission as the first black student at Clemson University in 1963 and James Solomon and Henri Monteith in their admission that same year as the first African American students of the University of South Carolina in the twentieth century. He also served as the trial lawyer for some of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court cases of the modern civil rights era, including Edwards v. South Carolina, which established broad legal protections for civil rights marchers, and Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, one of the earliest interpretations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Perry’s cases also led to the integration of South Carolina’s public schools, state parks, beaches, and hospitals and his landmark 1974 voting rights case against the South Carolina General Assembly, which resulted in the creation of single-member districts and an end to the at-large election of legislators. In commenting on the impact of his civil rights work, Perry once stated, “I don’t mean to be immodest, but my cases have turned South Carolina around.”
Perry was nominated by President Gerald Ford as a judge on the United States Military Court of Appeals in 1976, making him the first African American from the Deep South nominated to the federal bench. He was sworn in by his longtime mentor and friend Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter nominated Perry to be a United States district judge for the District of South Carolina, the first African American to serve in that position. Perry’s service as a federal judge has been widely praised, with the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary noting his “excellent legal ability” and that his “unfailingly courteous and polite” demeanor “enhances the stature of the federal judiciary.” Perry served as a district judge until 1995, when he assumed status as a senior United States district judge. Princeton University awarded Perry an honorary doctor of laws in 1998, noting that he was “a major force in the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina” and “played a leading role in a number of significant legal cases.” In 2000 ground was broken on the new Matthew J. Perry United States Courthouse in Columbia. See plate 37.
Brinson, Claudia Smith. “Council Honors Judge for Key Role in Civil Rights History.” Columbia State, June 14, 2001, pp. A1, A7.