James E. C. Perry at the United States Supreme Court

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James E. C. Perry at the United States Supreme Court

James E. C. Perry at the United States Supreme Court

March 2, 2017

James E. C. Perry, second from the right, with his law school classmates standing in front of the United States Supreme Court, 1971.

Justice James E. C. Perry became the first African-American judge appointed to the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit in Florida. Justice Perry served as Chief Judge of the Circuit Court beginning in July 2003.

In March 2009, Justice James E. C. Perry became the fourth African-American to serve as Florida Supreme Court Justice. Justice Perry retired from the Florida Supreme Court on December 30, 2016.

Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry describes his decision to go to law school and his experience passing the bar in this excerpt from an oral history interview with Justice Perry on December 19, 2016 at the Orlando Public Library.

LISTEN Part IV (19:16)

The Legal System

But it seems to me, and I find this rather fascinating, that from a very early time in your life you had somewhat of a belief in the legal system enough to want to use the legal system to fight injustice.

Oh absolutely. I mean I knew, I've heard of the Black Panthers. I've heard of Malcolm X. I've seen Malcolm X. I was in New York City from high school. I've seen Malcolm X at 125 Street and Lenox Avenue preaching about self determination, separation and etcetera. I knew that was not going to work. Black Panthers had their guns and I figured there weren't enough guns to win. So I made a determination early on to try to work within the system to promulgate these changes. So that was my view. Some people might disagree, but I think that makes sense.

And look what you've accomplished.


I wonder if you wouldn't mind telling us about getting licensed to practice law?

You want that story? If you wouldn't mind. I don't mind. As you know I graduated from Columbia University Law School in New York. It's one of the top schools in the nation. I didn't realize that at the time I entered. Because I didn't know any lawyers. I went to law school, I decided to go to law school the night Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was a first lieutenant in the Army. I was due to make captain. I decided I needed to get out of the Army because they said I was an officer and a gentleman and a leader. And I really went to law school for credibility only. Because most of the congressman and politicians were lawyers. Most other leaders were ministers, preachers. I'm not saying that to denigrate the preachers, but I thought that I needed to understand the system. Because I understand how systems work from military training and I needed to get the credibility because my views have never really changed.

But to have a platform where people would listen to you I thought I needed to. The night I decided to attend law school was for the specific purpose for King's struggle. Not that I wanted to be King, but I wanted to be a foot soldier. And to come back to the south to do it. So my plan was to come back to North Carolina. That's as far south as I'd ever been in my life.

North Carolina Bar

So I applied to take the North Carolina Bar a year before it was given. In New York you had to apply nine months before the exam was given. So I figured I'd give North Carolina three more months. And I drove down to Charlotte. I was married by that time, had an MGB sports car, two seater. My wife and I drove down to Charlotte and I met with Julius Chambers and a guy, his partner, by the name of Ferguson. I don't remember Ferguson's first name. And then I was informed that you have to apply your first year of law school or you had to wait 27 months. I guess the whole purpose of that was to keep outsiders out.

South Carolina Bar

So I said, "I can't wait that long." That was on a Friday morning. I got in my car and I drove down to Greenville, South Carolina. And I was told that they didn't have such a rule there, but they hadn't passed a black in seven years. And they had a rule that if you failed the exam three times you had to go back and get a Masters. Most blacks took the exam twice and were afraid to take it a third time. And I said, "that's not going to work."

Georgia Bar

So I got in my car and drove down to Atlanta, Georgia. Never been to Atlanta. Didn't know anybody in Atlanta. But I knew Maynard Jackson was the vice mayor of Atlanta at the time. He was a lawyer. He had a seven person law firm. I was able to find his office downtown. Knocked on his door and he gave me an hour's audience. And he told me that we don't have that problem in Georgia as they do in the Carolinas. We normally pass three blacks a year. One that graduated from Emory Law School, and one that graduated from the University of Georgia and we pass on other. He said, "One year we passed seven." I said, "Wow!" At the time there were about 38 black attorneys in the state of Georgia.

Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship

I had a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship for two years. It was a stipend of about $12,000 dollars a year. So I could go any place I wanted to go as long as it was a nonprofit. So he said, "Are you coming to Atlanta?" I said, "Well, I don't really like Atlanta because it reminds me a lot of New York and the traffic is terrible. So he had a big map on his wall of all the possible places that had legal services, legal aid. And I picked Augusta, Georgia because it was on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina, closer to North Carolina, a 120 miles from Atlanta on the interstate. And the Medical College in Georgia was there and Fort Gordon was there so I figured military town and there was a sizable black population and there were two black lawyers in the whole county. And I said, "I'll pick Augusta."

Because of the GI Bill, it worked for me, I was able to buy a house, brand new house there. That's another story. So I go back to New York, finish law school, move back down to my house, go to the University of Georgia in Athens take the bar review course, me and 50 other blacks. And that's about two to three weeks studying for the bar exam. Come back, take the bar exam in Atlanta and you wait for your results. Two to three weeks pass and you get an envelope. And, I didn't pass. So, I am not accustomed to not passing. So you mope for a week or two and then you get on the phone to find out what three passed. You find that they didn't pass any blacks not even the graduates of The University of Georgia, Emory, Harvard, Yale, top law schools in the nation.

Jack Greenberg, Director of the Legal Defense Fund

Members of bars of Pennsylvania, upper states couldn't pass the Georgia Bar. That was the first year of the multistate examination. So I decided to, along with another colleague of mine, Jack Lesan, he was a graduate of Duke and he was in Augusta also, so we called a meeting of applicants in Atlanta because that's where most of them were. They worked for the white firms. They were recruited to come down, of course, and they work in the firms. I said, "Look, why don't we sue these people?" Because I had class under Jack Greenburg at Columbia. Jack Greenburg was one of the lawyers involved with Thurgood Marshall in the Brown vs. Board of Education case. And he was also the Director of the Legal Defense Fund, which he was the successor to Thurgood Marshall. And he was my professor. He later became the Dean of the School of Law at Columbia.

Perry vs. Sell

So Jack sent Elaine Jones down who was his successor at the Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU. They hooked up together. And the lawsuit was filed in November of 1972, in the federal court for the Northern District of Georgia, and the name of the case is Perry vs. Sell. I was the main plaintiff. I could only get 16 of the 50 to join in the lawsuit. They said, "Jim, you could be blackballed for life." Hey, what can you do? You know, thy can't send me to Vietnam. They can't kill me is what I was thinking. My mother didn't agree with that. By that time I had moved my mother in with us because I had promised her I would take her out of the projects and I did. And in any event ? began in February 1973. They passed 11 of the 16 plaintiffs including me, and 13 others passed 24 blacks. June they passed 24 more blacks so we doubled the size of the bar in one year. That was my experience with the Georgia Bar.

I decided to move to Florida because after going through that I realized that this was too much of a culture shock for me. Not that I was that cosmopolitan, but I was accustomed to people who were not timid and people who had some intestinal fortitude and background and I didn't see a lot of that. I decided to move to DC because I wouldn't have to take another bar exam. And Ben Hooks was the chairman of the FCC and there were all kind of organizations. I figured I could continue my fight through the federal level. And I was having dinner with a friend who ran into another friend who was having dinner with a guy from Sanford, Horace Orr, who taught in the Orange County School System for a long time.

But he was also the president of an organization called the Seminole Employment Economic Development Corporation in Sanford. And he asked me to join him down here and I told him, "No way, I'm moving to Florida because I don't want to take another bar exam. The reason I moved to DC was that you didn't have to take another bar exam because on the federal level any state bar. So we're sitting there and we're having dinner and it was in November. I look out the window and I saw the snowflakes falling. I said, "Okay, I'll take you up on it." I'd come down and look at it. That's just how it happened. I remember I hated snow in New York, hated it. So I came down my wife and it was about Christmas. It was just about this time of the year. I remember people were walking around with shorts on and etcetera. We couldn't believe it. People were so friendly. They didn't tell us about the salamanders and the lizards and the mosquitos.

Florida Bar

So I gave them a two year commitment. I told them I need to take the Florida Bar first. And he told me, "You have to know somebody to pass the Florida Bar." I said, "Really? Who do you know?" He said, "I don't know anybody." Oh, boy, here we go again. So I applied to take the Florida Bar. And, one of the questions was have you ever been involved in a lawsuit? Yes. Plaintiff or defendant? Plaintiff. Send pertinent documents. So I boxed up information from the Georgia Bar and sent it to them. And I passed the Florida Bar the first time.

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