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Matthew Perry, civil rights lawyer, dies

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Matthew Perry, a civil rights lawyer who went from sitting in the courtroom balcony waiting for his cases to be heard because he was black to having the federal courthouse in Columbia named in his honor, has died. He was 89.

Perry died on Friday, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.

He first made his name in South Carolina with civil rights cases. That included successfully representing Harvey Gantt, who 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.

Throughout it all, friends said Perry kept the same warm spirit that endeared him to many and defused his critics. Both his friends and his adversaries say it was that kindness that helped South Carolina integrate with less violence than nearly every other Southern state.

"He is the only militant civil rights figure I know of who seems to be loved and respected by both racial groups while still engaged in the struggle," wrote Robert Carter, a U.S. District Judge in New York in the book "Matthew J. Perry: The Man, His Times, And His Legacy." Perry was born in Columbia on Aug. 3, 1921. He was raised by his mother and grandfather after his tailor father died when he was 12.

After high school, Perry enrolled at South Carolina State University. But World War II interrupted his schooling and led him to dedicate his life to civil rights.

While on leave, Perry stopped at a restaurant in Alabama. He had to order his sandwich from a window outside the kitchen while Italian prisoners-of-war were served inside.

"You have no idea the feeling of insult I experienced. As I say, that one reverberates," Perry had said about it.

After the war, Perry enrolled at South Carolina State's new law school and became its first graduate to pass the bar.

At the urging of his colleagues, Perry moved to Spartanburg to practice law because the area had no black attorneys. He quickly became known for his thorough preparation and willingness to take any case.

But judges and other lawyers never let him forget he was a black man in the South in the 1950s. Perry sometimes had to sit in the balcony with other blacks until his case was called. If he couldn't stay at the home of his client, he had to drive back home no matter how far because most motels wouldn't allow black guests.

Perry kept fighting. His civil rights wins were renowned. Along with integrating Clemson, colleagues estimate he got convictions reversed for hundreds if not thousands of people arrested for civil disobedience during the fight to end segregation.

Some of them could only pay with baskets of homegrown produce or homemade cakes and pies, offered after Perry had already waived his fee.

"Matthew personified the black lawyer of the 1950s and 1960s -- courageous, articulate and persuasive," said former state Chief Justice Ernest Finney, who graduated from South Carolina State's law school three years after Perry.

In 2004, the new federal courthouse in Columbia was named in his honor, his name etched high above the columns of the $40 million building.

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