Civil rights leader, judge buried

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. --- Civil rights leader and federal judge Matthew Perry was remembered Thursday as a trailblazer, eulogized by South Carolina's first black chief justice, its first female chief justice and the state's first black congressman in the 20th century.

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Matthew Perry was eulogized by the state's first black chief justice, its first female chief justice and first black congressman in the 20th century. A letter from President Obama was read.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Matthew Perry was eulogized by the state's first black chief justice, its first female chief justice and first black congressman in the 20th century. A letter from President Obama was read.

Mourners at Perry's funeral Thursday recalled how the young attorney's deep, rich baritone voice electrified a courtroom. Judges, witnesses and even opposing attorneys were mesmerized by his meticulous legal arguments. He taught young civil rights marchers to stay calm amid threatening crowds and tense demonstrations.

"Matthew was a luminary among an extraordinary generation. He was a linchpin and, for me, he was a touchstone. I have lost one of my heroes, one of my mentors," U.S. Rep. James Clyburn said.

Clyburn told mourners he was introduced to Perry in his youth when the young lawyer defended the Sumter branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Clyburn's mother was a member and brought him to see Perry in court, saying "I want you to see what you can be."

"He took command of the courtroom," Clyburn recalled. "He electrified the place. But he lost that case."

Undeterred, Clyburn said, Perry's courtroom performance "won the hearts and minds of all those who witnessed him in action -- friends and foes."

"He was slow to anger and didn't particularly like drawing attention to himself," said the congressman, a longtime friend of the judge. Perry defended Clyburn numerous times when he was arrested during civil rights demonstrations.

Clyburn read a letter from President Obama lauding Perry's work and expressing condolences. The congressman said one of his proudest moments came when he convinced President Bill Clinton to put money into the federal budget to build a new federal courthouse named for Perry.

Church officials said nearly 2,000 mourners packed one of the city's largest Baptist churches for the ceremony. Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Columbia's first black mayor, Steve Benjamin, attended. Dozens of judges and Perry's law clerks past and present served as honorary pallbearers.

South Carolina's first black chief justice, Ernest Finney, spoke, in addition to the current chief justice, Jean Toal.

"He was an imposing figure," said Toal, crediting Perry as her inspiration to study law. "His command of language was a thing of beauty. His command of the law was powerful."

Perry's gentle smile and dignified bearing remained a constant during his 89 years, even as he endured insults that would have deterred many others. Retired Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings recalled that Perry sometimes had to sit in the balcony with other blacks until his case was called.

"He suffered every abuse, every indignity, but always responded with that sweet smile that he had on his face," Hollings said.

South Carolina's first black federal judge was remembered as a man who transformed a segregated state using inspirational teaching, a generous sense of humor and a passion for justice during his fight for racial equality.

Hollings called Perry "a giant -- a real inspiration in South Carolina."

One of his first major cases included successfully representing Harvey Gantt, who in 1963 became the first black student to attend classes at Clemson University.

In 1975, Perry became the first black judge in the state named to the federal bench at the U.S. Court of Military Appeals. Four years later, he became a U.S. District judge. Twenty-five years later, the federal courthouse in Columbia was opened with his name out front.

Still, Clyburn said, Perry "saw himself as nothing more than a man of the people standing up for justice and equality."

And Perry also knew how to defuse a situation with humor. Hollings told a story about how when Perry would arrive at a South Carolina restaurant during segregation, the owner would often tell him that the business didn't serve coloreds.

"I wasn't there looking for greens," was the way Hollings remembered Perry delivering the punch line.


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