WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ South Carolina's first black federal judge was remembered Thursday as a man who transformed a segregated state using inspirational teaching, a generous sense of humor and a passion for justice during his fight for racial equality.
Mourners including state and federal officials packed a Baptist church for the funeral of civil rights pioneer and longtime federal judge Matthew Perry Jr., who died Friday. He was 89.
Retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings called Perry “a giant _ a real inspiration in South Carolina.''
He told of how Perry was run off the road and thrown in jail but always inspired those around him to react to injustice by staying cool and keeping a sense of humor.
“He suffered every abuse, every indignity, but always responded with that sweet smile that he had on his face,'' Hollings said.
Perry started as a civil rights lawyer who had to sit in the courtroom balcony waiting for his cases to be heard because he was black and ultimately lived to see the federal courthouse in Columbia named in his honor.
He first made his name in South Carolina with civil rights cases. That included successfully representing Harvey Gant, 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.
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn told mourners he was introduced to Perry in his youth when the young lawyer defended the Sumter branch of the NAACP, in which Clyburn's mother was active. She brought him to see Perry in court, telling him, “I want you to see what you can be.''
“He took command of the courtroom,'' Clyburn recalled. “He electrified the place.''
He characterized Perry as “the strong, quiet, deliberate type.''
“He was slow to anger and didn't particularly like drawing attention to himself,'' said the congressman, a longtime friend of the judge.
Clyburn read a letter from President Barack Obama lauding Perry's work and expressing condolences. The congressman said one of his proudest moments came when he was able to secure funding from President Bill Clinton to build a new federal courthouse named for Perry.
Still, he said, Perry “saw himself as nothing more than a man of the people standing up for justice and equality.''
“Matthew was a luminary among an extraordinary generation. He was a lynchpin and, for me, he was a touchstone. I have lost one of my heroes, one of my mentors,'' Clyburn said.