Vol. 14 No. 9 (September 2004), pp.700-703

MATTHEW J. PERRY:  THE MAN, HIS TIMES, AND HIS LEGACY, by W. Lewis Burke and Belinda F. Gergel (Editors).  Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina Press, 2004.  312pp.  Hardcover  $24.95.  ISBN:  1-57003-534-2.

Reviewed by Staci L. Beavers, Department of Political Science, California State University San Marcos.  Email: sbeavers@csusm.edu.

With this volume, editors W. Lewis Burke and Belinda F. Gergel have assembled a glowing tribute to a figure from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement who has for too long remained largely overlooked outside his home state of South Carolina.  Matthew J. Perry’s work as a key civil rights attorney during South Carolina’s desegregation struggles and later as a U.S. District Court judge have earned him a wealth of friends and admirers who have contributed essays celebrating his contributions to legal equality and justice.  Several essays also go further, providing insights into the climate of South Carolina in the post-Reconstruction, desegregation, and contemporary eras.  The book becomes available as Judge Perry, who continues to serve as a senior judge, has begun hearing cases in a federal courthouse in Columbia named in his honor. 

One of a very few African American attorneys in post-World War II South Carolina, Perry represented clients ranging from black defendants facing capital sentences to schoolchildren seeking to implement the promises of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown ruling.  Perry’s leadership in South Carolina’s school desegregation cases, as well as cases involving lunch counter sit-ins and public demonstrations, is widely credited for furthering South Carolina’s relatively peaceful desegregation transition.  He also took several turns before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning four of the five cases he argued there.  After a brief stint as a Ford appointee to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, Perry was nominated for a U.S. District Court judgeship by President Carter, taking his seat there in 1979. 

As an interdisciplinary collection of essays ranging from personal vignettes by former clients and colleagues (as well as a few former opponents) to scholarly essays by fellow jurists, different portions of the book should appeal to a range of audiences.  Following Randall L. Kennedy’s engaging introductory overview of Perry’s life in the Jim Crow South and his efforts to dismantle that system, the book’s chapters follow logically from those developing the historical context for Perry’s entry into the legal profession shortly after World War II to those addressing his own contributions to civil rights litigation into the early 1970s.  Dan Carter’s disconcerting concluding essay, written from the perspective of a white South Carolinian whose racial attitudes and politics shifted as he lived in the midst of changes wrought in part by Matthew Perry, explores the lingering racial polarization that continues to play a role in shaping South Carolina’s politics and policies.  One point that bears noting is that, unfortunately, while little substantive attention is given to Perry’s service on the bench, there is conversely [*701] significant overlap across several chapters in addressing Perry’s life and a few select aspects of his career as a litigator.  Might some of this attention have been shifted to examining the most recent several decades of Judge Perry’s work? 

For those interested in doctrinal development, Leon Friedman and Richard Mark Gergel’s aptly titled chapter, “Matthew J. Perry’s Contribution to the Development of Constitutional Law,” will be especially useful.  The chapter makes clear Perry’s contributions to several key Supreme Court decisions from the 1960s and places the cases into their broader constitutional frameworks.  For example, Edwards v. South Carolina (1963) put the First Amendment to work in nullifying the convictions of students arrested for engaging in peaceful protest on Statehouse grounds.  As the lead trial attorney for the defendants, Perry’s careful questioning of trial witnesses and meticulous documentation of the defendants’ peaceful actions contributed significantly to the NAACP’s briefs to the Supreme Court and the Court’s ultimate ruling for the protestors.  In several lunch counter sit-in cases, including Peterson v. City of Greenville (1963), Perry’s own arguments before the Supreme Court helped to bring the demise of state and local laws mandating segregated restaurant facilities.  In their presentation, the authors make clear that the solid performance of attorneys at all levels, from pre-trial motions to Supreme Court review, can influence the final resolution of a case and ultimately hold doctrinal implications.   Robert J. Moore’s later entry also provides background material regarding Perry’s involvement in cases involving the desegregation of South Carolina’s public schools and parks.

Two chapters are devoted to individual cases.  First, Orville Vernon Burton’s “Dining with Harvey Gantt” works to dispel what Burton calls South Carolina’s desegregation “myth of moderation.”  With the help of attorney Matthew Perry, future Charlotte mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Harvey Gantt entered Clemson University in 1963.  Burton seeks to remind readers of the barriers that various public officials seeking to maintain support within the white community put in the way of achieving the “‘integration with dignity’” for which South Carolinians today congratulate themselves.  As Dan Carter reminds readers in his concluding chapter, the risk of “whitewashing” history, particularly for the consumption of those seeking more sympathetic versions of events, is quite real, and the challenges that Gantt and Perry faced in winning their point cannot be allowed to be downplayed.      

But more compelling is Judge Cameron McGowan Currie’s recounting of the story of Sarah Mae Flemming. While Rosa Parks’ arrest for sitting in the “white” section of a bus led to the Montgomery bus boycott and guaranteed her place in history, Sarah Mae Flemming’s earlier run-in with a Columbia, South Carolina bus driver has largely faded from the public’s memory.  Asserting that a bus driver struck her for sitting in the front of a bus and then attempting to exit through the “white” door, Miss Flemming filed suit against the bus company.  An all-white jury ultimately dismissed her claims, but years of litigation were spent getting [*702] the case to a jury at all.  During the first round of appeals, a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel applied the Brown doctrine to nullify South Carolina’s statutes mandating segregated mass transportation facilities (Flemming v. South Carolina Electric and Gas Co. (1955)).  The Fourth Circuit ruling in fact proved an important precedent supporting Parks’ successful outcome in Montgomery.  Matthew Perry came to the Flemming case only in its latter stages, but Flemming’s story works well in this collection, not only in reminding readers of the great number of “unsung heroes” who help propel any social movement, but also in its attention to the complexity of the collaboration among the numerous attorneys who pushed the Civil Rights Movement forward.

One full chapter is devoted to personal “vignettes” praising Judge Perry.  Interestingly, included among these are contributions from former opponents, including former South Carolina Governor Robert E. McNair.  Most touching is the testimonial submitted by the daughters of J. Arthur Brown, president of the Charleston County NAACP during the battle to desegregate South Carolina’s public schools.  As schoolchildren who helped desegregate the Charleston schools and were later arrested for protest activities, they spoke of the great respect and courtesy with which Perry treated even his youngest clients.  Several of these vignettes, such as those by South Carolina’s Chief Justice, Jean Hoefer Toal, are helpful in illustrating why Perry is a figure worth knowing better.  

Judge Constance Baker Motley’s “Memory, History, and Community” comes closest to addressing Perry’s judicial career, though her actual discussion of his judicial record is most fleeting.  Motley illustrates Perry’s career as one fulfilling the Houstonian tradition of “lawyer-as-social engineer” (p.221), with its encouragement that African American attorneys put their legal positions and talents to work for the continued betterment of the African American community.  Motley goes further, however, in praising Perry as a “Houstonian Judge,” a role she puts forward as requiring in part that an African American judge seek to continue service to the black community.  While Baker Motley encourages every judge, regardless of background, to seek to protect “marginalized and powerless constituencies” (p.233), the essay really only begins to suggest the particular burdens and potentially conflicting pressures placed on judges from marginalized backgrounds, who are expected to decide cases objectively on the bench while simultaneously being urged to “‘remember where they came from’” (p.233).  

W. Lewis Burke and William C. Hines’ chapter provides historical background on the evolution of legal education for blacks in South Carolina.  In part, they explore the just irony of Perry’s alma mater, South Carolina State College Law School.  Specifically created to prevent the desegregation of the University of South Carolina under the ex rel. Gaines doctrine (1938), the underfunded and unaccredited SCSCLS succeeded in training many of the black attorneys who ultimately litigated an end to South Carolina’s entire structure of de jure segregation.  While the early part of the chapter becomes bogged down in reciting the histories of South Carolina’s [*703] earliest black attorneys, its insights into the politics of SCSCLS’s creation and history, particularly including the role of the school’s graduates in the Civil Rights Movement, makes the piece an interesting addition to this collection. 

As a tribute that raises the profile of a noteworthy figure, the book clearly succeeds.  However, some additional points should be noted.  For example, there is little attention to Stevenson v. West (1973), which required the reapportionment of South Carolina’s lower legislative chamber into single-member districts and thus guaranteed some legislative representation for African Americans in the state.  While Dan Carter’s essay on South Carolina’s racial politics mentions Perry’s involvement in STEVENSON, and Perry himself has noted this as one of his more important cases (Moore, p.174), STEVENSON and representation get very short shrift.  Further, criticisms of Perry’s personal style and legal strategies, particularly from within the African American community, are hinted at by a few contributors but never explored in the text.  While criticisms might arguably be out of place in a work intended as a tribute, such explorations could provide a more complete understanding of Perry’s role in the Civil Rights Movement and, more broadly, the challenges of leadership within that Movement.  


BroWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

MISSOURI EX REL. GAINES v. CANADA, 305 U.S. 337 (1938).

Flemming v. South Carolina Electric and Gas Co., 224 F.2d 752 (4th Circ. 1955).

STEVENSON v. WEST, 413 U.S. 902 (1973).


Copyright 2004 by the author, Staci L. Beavers.