Matthew Perry, federal judge and civil rights pioneer, dead at 89

U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Perry, a towering civil rights figure who used intellect, hard work and courage to end segregation in South Carolina and usher in a more just society, was found dead at his home on Sunday. He would have turned 90 this week.

Perry, who went to work as usual on Friday at the courthouse that now bears his name, apparently died of natural causes Friday evening. His body was discovered by a family member who came by each Sunday to prepare a meal for Perry and his wife Hallie, Richland County coroner Gary Watts said. Hallie Perry is in poor health, Watts said.

News of Perry’s death prompted an outpouring of emotion as colleagues, friends and clients remembered a man who, like former U.S. Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings and the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, was a transformative figure in the political life of the state.

“He was a shining example of unflinching courage and leadership,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said in a statement. “Simply put, he was a giant and this world will be a lesser place without him.”

The mayor said flags at city buildings will be flown at half-staff in coming days.

“Matthew Perry — an iron fist in a velvet glove — courteous, polite, even jocular but unshakably determined,” S.C. historian Walter Edgar said.

Perry’s birthday was to be commemorated this weekend at a celebration organized by S.C. trial lawyers in Hilton Head.

Perry was one of the first black men from the South appointed to a federal court. At his death, he was still serving as a senior U.S. District Court judge for the state of South Carolina.

During the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Perry was a young, unflappable attorney who made friends of his enemies even as he compelled resistant whites to open public parks and university classrooms to black South Carolinians.

He knew the law when few black men did. Every courtroom appearance, he once said, was a crusade to prove he was thoroughly prepared.

He was an effective advocate, too, earning reprieves for thousands of people, many of them students protesting segregation and slapped with trespassing charges.

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