Date of Award
Open Access Dissertation
School of Journalism and Mass Communications
Civil rights lawyer Matthew J. Perry Jr. represented African American South Carolinians through three decades in their individual grievances and collective protests against segregation, injustice, and discrimination in the post-Brown v. Board of Education African American freedom struggle. Starting in the 1950s, he filled a vital role as chairman of the state NAACP legal redress committee at the critical moment of massive White resistance. He built a statewide network of civil rights lawyers modeled on Thurgood Marshall’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund to handle mass protest cases in the Civil Rights Era. Perry argued cases across South Carolina for civil rights activists and criminal defendants from the first hearing to the United States Supreme Court. This dissertation uses three case studies to examine how Perry’s strategic, relentless work helped to establish a vital First Amendment precedent and Fourteenth Amendment protections for the freedom struggle—and the nation—as it changed from the 1950s school desegregation focus to the student direct action movement of the early 1960s.
In the Deep South state, the individual cases were covered extensively by the news media, both print and broadcast, city and national, African American-owned and White-owned but in distinctly different ways. Perry was keenly aware of his role as a representative of his clients in particular and African Americans in general. As he noted later in a television interview, he was aware that he was “always … on display.” Perry used respectability politics to disarm opposing lawyers, hostile judges, and governors and, to an extent, to mask his militancy.
From 1954 to 1963, the main period of this study, the African American press in South Carolina was in a time of ferment and struggle to establish and sustain alternatives to the dominant media coverage. Perry’s life and career serve as a valuable lens through which to view the news media work in the long civil rights movement.
Using the Civil Sphere Theory of cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander and drawing on print and broadcast news archives, oral histories, legal records, and personal papers, I explore news coverage of three episodes in Perry’s early career— the 1954- 1957 Sarah Mae Flemming Brown bus segregation civil lawsuit; the 1961-1963 breach of peace appeal on First Amendment grounds in Edwards v. South Carolina; and the 1962- 1963 education segregation challenge by Harvey Gantt—to consider how Perry, as a person and in his legal work, helped to expand the civil sphere for African Americans. As a lawyer, Perry worked primarily through the courts and secondarily through the news media to expand the civil sphere in transportation, public accommodations, public demonstration, and education for African Americans in South Carolina and throughout the country. In assessing the news coverage of Perry and his work, I use Alexander’s empirical technique of identifying binary language used in discourse—in courts and in news accounts—to either purify or pollute minorities as fit or unfit to participate in the civil sphere. I also use the theory to consider how Perry’s legal work helped expand the civil sphere for African Americans in South Carolina and the nation in transportation, education, assembly and demonstration, and public accommodations, and, finally, how the news media responded to his work and those expansions.
Frear, C. G.(2023). Always on Display: South Carolina Civil Rights Lawyer Matthew J. Perry Jr. Expanding the Civil Sphere Through the Courts and the News Media, 1954-1963. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/7377
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