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 the 82-year-old judge’s name sits atop the columns of South Carolina’s new federal courthouse, which was dedicated Friday in honor of the civil rights pioneer.
“I’m tremendously honored. I’m humbled,” Perry said. “My family thanks you and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
About a thousand people attended the ceremony, including 64-year-old Alma Dinkins, who has closely followed the judge’s career.
“To me, Judge Perry has set an example for all young people to fight for human rights for all people,” she said.
A native of Columbia, Perry became dedicated to civil rights when he saw how freely blacks lived in Europe during World War II, according to his friends.
Jarring experience on leave in Alabama
The decisive blow came while Perry was on leave in Alabama and saw an Italian prisoner-of-war being served inside a restaurant when he had to order his sandwich from a window outside the kitchen.
He would go on to represent Harvey Gantt, who was the first black student to attend classes at Clemson University. Perry’s colleagues estimate he got convictions reversed for thousands of people arrested for civil disobedience during the fight to end segregation.
“Women lawyers of South Carolina hold him in particular affection for paving the way for us when we were not accepted in courtrooms,” state Chief Justice Jean Toal said.
Democratic Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings added that Perry won the understanding, respect and admiration of others “bit-by-bit.”
“And finally he won all these honors from the courts that humiliated him,” Hollings said.
Clyburn pushed to honor Perry
Perry also represented Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, who was a teenager when he and about 300 others 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 ... for inspiring those of us who wondered sometimes if we would ever get justice from this system,” said Clyburn, who pushed legislation through Congress to name the courthouse in Perry’s honor.
Philip Simmons, a Charleston ironworker, came out of retirement to fashion the gates for the $40 million courthouse, where a statue of Perry sits in the courtyard.
The inscription reads: “While I breathe, I hope” — the state motto.