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