In a hallway of the Anderson County Federal Courthouse, a young Harvey Gantt, briefcase in hand, beams at Constance Baker Motley, one of the lawyers arguing for his admission into Clemson University.
To Gantt’s right in the photograph, another one of his lawyers, briefcase in hand, musters a modest smile for the photographer. It’s as if Matthew J. Perry, a civil rights maverick who argued against segregation in courtrooms throughout the state, is hinting at the celebration to come.
In 1963, Gantt became Clemson’s first black student.
The photo at the Anderson courthouse is one of 15 images in “The Life and Times of Judge Matthew Perry: Captured in Photographs by Cecil J. Williams,” a photography exhibition that opens at the Columbia Museum of Art today.
Perry, the first black federal judge in South Carolina, died at his home in July. Williams, who began photographing Perry in 1960, sees the show as further tribute to Perry’s legacy.
“He was a man who devoted his entire life to freedom, justice and equality,” Williams, an Orangeburg-based photographer, said. “He was one of the pioneering attorneys who fought Jim Crow in South Carolina.”
Williams is a pioneer, too. He began documenting civil-rights demonstrations with his camera as a teen. At 14, he began freelancing for JET magazine, and he also sold his photographs to The Associated Press and other national publications.
Williams snapped photos of Rev. J.A. Delanie, the man who counseled Harry Briggs to petition the Clarendon County school board’s “separate but equal” policy. The case, which brought Thurgood Marshall, then an NAACP lawyer, to the state, was later rolled into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
Williams, then 11, photographed Marshall’s arrival in Charleston in 1951. He also captured the boycotts and student protests at Claflin College and South Carolina State College.
“And Perry was right in the middle of it,” Williams said. “His leadership was honed by fighting an adversary like Jim Crow and those laws that governed us African-Americans during those days.
“It allowed him to specialize in the racism and discrimination that African-Americans faced, and to go to battle in the court system to overturn those laws that kept us down and apart from.”
It was an era of protest. Students defied segregation at department-store counters. They staged sit-ins in Charleston, Orangeburg, Columbia, Sumter, Greenville and Rock Hill. By one count, Perry got as many as 7,000 protesters acquitted on appeals, because that was his strategy — to make his case to a local judge, knowing he’d lose, and go on to pursue justice in higher courts.
In one of the exhibition’s images, Williams shows Perry, along with fellow NAACP lawyers Zack Townsend and Earl W. Coblyn, discussing strategy. The two men thoughtfully look at Perry, who is sitting on the trunk of car.
At the inauguration parade for Gov. Donald S. Russell in January 1963, Perry stands with Rev. Harold Roland and Williams, unaware of the camera.
If there’s something the exhibition lacks, it’s more candid photos of Perry, many of which can be found in Williams’ book, “Out-of-the-Box in Dixie: Cecil Williams’ Photography of the South Carolina Events that Changed America.”
The most iconic image in “The Life and Times of Judge Matthew Perry” is of Gantt, surrounded by a throng of reporters, photographers and onlookers, walking on Clemson’s campus.
Perry is nowhere to be found in the frame. Fitting, since he had more arguments to prepare at the time, more lives to change. “He knew the law, and knew how to use it,” Williams said. “And he knew that this was groundbreaking.”