James E.C. Perry

Witnessing Progress

James E.C. Perry '72, the new Florida Supreme Court justice, had a firsthand perspective of the South during the civil rights movement.

By James Vescovi

Summer 2009

After learning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 10-year-old James E.C. Perry '72 attended a funeral with residents of his hometown, New Bern, N.C.

“I joined the procession behind a casket as it was carried into a playing field in the middle of the projects,” recalls Perry, who was appointed to the seven-member Florida Supreme Court by Governor Charlie Crist in March. “Inside was ‘Jim Crow.’ A bonfire was lit, and he and the casket went up in flames.”

To hear about Perry’s life is in some ways to follow the historical progress of the U.S. civil rights movement. In junior high school, Perry participated in sit-ins, including one to call attention to a segregated lunch counter at a local department store. As a sophomore at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., from which he graduated in 1966 with a degree in business administration and accounting, he and three fellow students tried to attend a service at the city’s all-white First Baptist Church. When the preacher noticed them, he alerted ushers and the young men were escorted out.

Perry was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. That evening, Perry decided to attend law school. Shortly after graduating from Columbia Law School, he moved to Georgia and took the state’s bar exam with 50 other African-Americans. Not one was offered admittance to the Georgia bar.

After seeking advice from Law School Professor Jack Greenberg, Perry persuaded 16 of the 50 candidates to join a discrimination suit. Within three months, 11 of them would pass the exam. In less than a year, African-American membership to the state’s bar doubled. 

“We really began to transform Georgia,” said Perry, who modestly gives credit to Columbia Law School. “I was well prepared, and I wasn’t afraid.” 

Perry and his family eventually moved to Florida, where he spent 21 years in private practice as a partner at several central Florida law firms. In 2000, he became the first African-American appointed to the state’s 18th Judicial Circuit, which serves Seminole and Brevard counties. Between 2003 and 2005, he oversaw the 49-judge circuit as chief judge.

Perry’s work outside the courtroom has also advanced civil rights. Chief among his accomplishments is founding and running the Jackie Robinson Sports Association, a baseball league that served 650 at-risk boys and girls. The program began in 1994 and used baseball as “carrot” to encourage children to work with tutors in a variety of academic subjects.

Perry is quick to note that he is “absolutely pleased” with the program’s results. “A kid who steals second base isn’t usually stealing anything else,” he says.

On a larger scale, Perry is optimistic, as well as cautious, about the future of race relations in America. 

“Reconciliation is needed, but we’ve also got to examine problems and tensions head-on,” he says. “Chief among them is fear.”