Originally created 04/24/04

Courthouse gets name of civil rights advocate



COLUMBIA - When Matthew Perry started trying cases in South Carolina 50 years ago, judges made the young black lawyer sit in the balcony until his case was called.

Now Judge Perry's name sits atop columns soaring three stories high on the state's newest federal courthouse, dedicated Friday in honor of the civil rights pioneer.

Judge Perry, still an active federal judge at 82, said he was humbled and grateful for the honor, which brought together scores of South Carolina's most esteemed lawyers, judges and other professionals.

U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings talked about how Judge Perry had to eat a sandwich made at home in the courtroom halls when he started because restaurants and lunch counters in the state were still segregated.

"Judge Perry bit by bit won understanding, bit by bit won respect, bit by bit won admiration," said Mr. Hollings, D-S.C. "And finally he won all these honors from the courts that humiliated him."

Judge Perry's name on the new $40 million courthouse is a thank you from Rep. Jim Clyburn, who pushed the legislation through Congress. Judge Perry represented a teenage Mr. Clyburn and about 300 others who were arrested in a civil rights protest.

"I decided that if I ever got the chance, I would repay Matthew. Not for winning the case, but I would repay him for inspiring those of us who wondered sometimes if we would ever get justice from this system," said Mr. Clyburn, D-S.C.

But Mr. Clyburn said Judge Perry was inspiring him long before that. He first ran into the attorney when he was a high school student in Sumter.

Mr. Clyburn's mother took him to the courthouse, and he said he watched in awe as Judge Perry argued a case on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"She wanted me to see what I could be," Mr. Clyburn said.

Judge Perry was born in Columbia. Friends say he became dedicated to civil rights when he saw how freely blacks lived in Europe during World War II.

The final blow was when on leave in Alabama, Judge Perry saw an Italian prisoner of war being served inside a restaurant when he had to order his sandwich from a window outside the kitchen.

His civil rights wins were renowned. Judge Perry represented Harvey Gantt, the first black student to attend classes at Clemson University. Colleagues estimate he got convictions reversed for thousands of people arrested for civil disobedience during the fight to end segregation.

South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal said Judge Perry wasn't struggling just to get blacks equal rights, but also showed the way for women.

She said no one would have believed 40 years ago that the federal courthouse in Columbia would be named for a black man, the legislation to do it would be pushed by a black lawmaker and a woman who happens to be the state's most powerful judge would be thanking them both.

"Women lawyers of South Carolina hold him in particular affection for paving the way for us when we were not accepted in courtrooms," Chief Justice Toal said.

The courthouse, which opened several months ago, has eight courtrooms.

Renowned Charleston ironworker Philip Simmons came out of retirement to fashion the gates for the courthouse, which feature the scales of justice and South Carolina's famous palmetto trees. A statue of Judge Perry sits in the courtyard.

"I'm tremendously honored. I'm humbled," Judge Perry said. "My family thanks you and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts."