Oral history interview with Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry at the Orlando Public Library, December 19, 2016.
My name is James Edward Clark Perry. I was born in New Bern, North Carolina. I was born in the housing projects in New Bern, North Carolina called Craven Terrace. I was born at D-2250. The Building was D-2 and the apartment was 250. And I was born upstairs. It was a two story. It was kind of like town housing. But it had two stories up and down. I was born in the upstairs bedroom. I was delivered by a midwife, January 24, 1944, at seven o’clock in the morning and it was cold. There was a midwife that probably delivered all of the black kids in the area. Her name was Mrs. West. And I never went to the hospital. And my mother was 40 years old. That is amazing. It is. Short of the Immaculate Conception. (Laughter.)
Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry, October 2016.
LISTEN Part I (17:02)
What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?
Growing up my father would wake us up in the morning about seven o’clock. He would have cooked breakfast. Breakfast consisted primarily of macaroni and cheese or rice and cheese, and pork chops. We ate a heavy breakfast because the whole day would be spent in church. Did you have Sunday School? Well, you go to Sunday School and then after Sunday School you would go to the regular church. Then normally, it would depend if it was my mother’s church or my father’s church, at my mother’s church then they would have dinner. It would be served at the church. Then there would be afternoon service. If it was at my father’s church, his was a Methodist Church, it was a little different. There was Sunday School, then there was a regular church service and then they may or may not have something in the afternoon. And your mother’s church wasn’t Methodist? No. It was Disciples of Christ. They wash feet. Humility.
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
And that wasn’t a special occasion, that was a regular part of your growing up life? That was a typical Sunday. I couldn’t go to the movies because they thought the Sabbath was holy and you’re suppose to keep it that way. And today you sing in the choir, don’t you? I did sing in the choir. I’m a member of Carter Tabernacle, CME Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and I sang in the choir for about 20 years, I guess. And when I was elevated to the bench I stopped because I didn’t have time to go to choir rehearsal. I still like to sing. Do you think you might be going back? Probably not. I had an operation on my throat. There was something on my vocal cord and my voice has changed. I can’t hit high notes any more.
You sang in school. Did you learn to sing in church or in school or both? My father sang, played the piano, the organ, and, I guess, it was just part of growing up. He would be in the bathroom shaving and he would sing. My mother would sing as well while she was cooking, whatever household chores she had to do. So there was always some sort of songs in the house.
Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry at age 9.
Did you know your grandparents?
I knew my grandparents. I knew my grandmother on my father’s side and my grandfather on my mother’s side. I never knew or saw the two together, the couple, the grandmother and grandfather on either side. What were they like? Well, I mean, my grandfather probably died on my mother’s side when I was about five or six years old. I have a memory of him being tall, he had a cane. He was a deacon in the church. He was the authority figure.
And my grandmother on my father’s side I remember very well. She lived longer. My grandmother was very light complected. I guess, you would call her mulatto on my father’s side. She was educated. She finished from a normal school and she taught. She was a teacher at one time. Then she was a photographer. She was an entrepreneur. How did she do all that? I mean, women weren’t really doing those things. She was a special woman. She was very independent. Very outspoken. Unfortunately, she didn’t like us, our side of the family because my mother was not from a mulatto family. There was discrimination even among blacks.
She once told me that I would be in prison before I was 20. And later on she would say that she supported the wrong side of the family because the side of the family she supported who were more like her didn’t really make it. They were on welfare and prison and everything else. So when I graduated from Officer Candidate School they sent a picture home in the newspaper announcing my graduation. This was after college and etcetera. She said, “Why did you let them put such a dark picture of you in the paper?” Well, I was stationed at Fort Eustis. It was a hundred degrees in the summer and we were outside a lot. So I was darker than I normally was.
She had her good points. As I say she was independent and I’m sure her DNA is probably in me. She was intelligent or should I say knowledgeable? I guess there was a modicum of intelligence also. But there’s a difference between intelligence and knowledge. Intelligence, of course, is the ability to use what you know in everyday life situations.
Once when I was in fifth grade, the teachers told us not to play in the playground before school. So I did. You know kids play in the playground before school. And the bell rang and you would go get your books. So the teacher took my books. And, it was reported to my grandmother that the teacher took my books and she wouldn’t give them back. So, she walked from Pembroke where she lived which is on the outskirts of New Bern to the Principal’s office and asked him, “How do you expect him to learn if you’ve taken his books?” And, I got my books back. So, I guess I have sort of ambivalent feelings about her.
Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry as a boy.
One time when I was working in the drug store, my father was 65 years old, she said she was 67. You never really knew how old she really was. That’s my grandmother. Now there were no warm and fuzzies about her at least as far as we were concerned. She was pragmatic, matter of fact, self absorbed person.
Did you know any aunts and uncles?
Yes. My mother was one of eight siblings and I knew all of them very well except for one and that was the oldest sister that died of cancer when I was, I guess I was in elementary school. My family basically migrated during the Great Migration: on my mother’s side to Brooklyn, on my father’s side they migrated to Philadelphia and Brooklyn. I knew all of my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side except the oldest one and that was Mattie. And on my father’s side, I knew, let me see there were, he had four other siblings and I knew all of them. Not very well, but I knew them.
James E. C. Perry with his Uncle Needham Williams and cousins.
How would you usually spend Christmas?
We had Christmas at our house. I mean just my immediate family. I was the youngest of three by, I think my brother was nine years older. They migrated to Brooklyn early so I grew up as an only child for the most part. Christmas was Christmas. My mother provided things for Christmas. My father wasn’t really into Christmas. Matter of fact one Christmas he said, he forgot it was Christmas. So, I guess, my mother was the real stability in the family. And, my uncle, Uncle Seth Williams who lived in Pembroke, he was the patriarch of the family as far as I’m concerned although he was not the oldest. But he was the one that did not migrate to New York or Brooklyn.
Uncle Seth Williams
What was he like? He was a wonderful person. He had a car. He would always pick us up on Sunday to go to church in the country. I call Pembroke the country. That’s where my mother’s church was. And that’s where her family’s church was. And he would pick us up and take us and bring us back. And if we traveled any place outside of the city he would take us. He was a mechanic. I’m not sure if he was an aircraft mechanic. He worked at Cherry Point Marine Air Base. I don’t know if he was an aircraft mechanic or an auto mechanic. But that’s basically what he did. He was a civil servant.
President of the NAACP Locally
And he was also the President of the NAACP locally during the time, 1954, when Brown vs. the Board of Education was decided. And I was told many years later that the Klan burned a cross on his lawn because of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. I was told that years later. Of course, you always try to protect the younger ones. But he was obviously my favorite uncle. I named my daughter after him. What’s your daughter’s name? Kamilah LaSeth Perry. So “Seth” was and I put an “La” in front of it.
What did your parents do?
My father was a foreman in a veneer plant. He was a lathe operator on the waterfront. The plant was over the water because the logs would float down the river. And he would- whatever the lathe operator does, I guess, he makes the wood veneer. It was the veneer plant. And so, he did that for many, many years. He was the only one that could repair the machines. And the flood would give away, the floor was made of wood, and every now and then it would drop into the river. And it would have to be hoisted back up. And he was the only one that could repair it. So he had job security. He was asked to train younger white guys as to how to operate it and repair it. He said he taught them some things, but not everything.
My mother was a, I guess, she was a domestic servant. I read one Census report before I was born and she was apparently going to New Rochelle, New York to a family. She was a live in maid and they hired her as a domestic servant. And when she came back after I was born she didn’t go back. She worked as a domestic servant for Miss Miles at the Queen Anne Hotel. She owned the hotel. She worked personally for her. And then she became a practical nurse and worked in hospitals doing the clean up work in the rooms while the patients were there in the rooms. I guess it was sort of janitorial, but you’re around patients. And that’s basically what she did. I bet she was very caring to the patients. Oh, she was very nurturing. I called her the Florence Nightingale of the family. Whenever anybody had a problem she would travel to New York, Philadelphia, wherever they were and she would take care of them.
James E. C. Perry with his mother, far right, and family, 1974.
LISTEN Part II (17:21)
Have you always loved school?
Well, I guess you have to talk about the early years. I was always on the academic track. I never took any vocational courses and I don’t know why I didn’t, but I guess I didn’t. But when my mother worked she would take me to a babysitter and this babysitter happen to have about ten or twelve children. Instead of just watching us she would teach us sort of like a Head Start Program. And I learned to read and write in cursive. So by the time I started to the organized kindergarten they were learning ABC’s sing a long and I knew my ABC’s already. So by the time I went to the first grade I was put in the upper tier of the, you know, they have tiers, first, second, third, fourth, fifth and I was in the top one. And that was normally reserved for the parents of professionals who had, I guess, a head start, because education begins at home.
Hattie Perry, Broad Street Teacher Extraordinaire
Mine didn’t begin at home. It began at my babysitter and her name was Hattie Perry. She wasn’t related. But they called her “Mutt” and I would walk to Broad Street, which was about two to three blocks from my house, every day and she would teach us. How would she maintain discipline? You know, I don’t really remember, but she must have had discipline. We all had assignments. We were doing things. We were learning. They say, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” So I don’t know if she did this on purpose or it was a fortuitous thing. But she did it on purpose in terms of teaching us. But I don’t know if she did it in order to have discipline or she did it because it was the right thing to do. But I don’t remember any disruptions. Isn’t that kind of amazing? Yes, it is. It’s amazing. My whole life has been amazing.
Most Versatile, Best All Around Student
Yes, that was in high school. As I said, I was in the upper tier from the first grade on up through the 12th. I started playing football, varsity football in the 8th grade. I really shouldn’t have started until the 9th grade. I was 6’2 at the time. And I played basketball, varsity basketball in the 8th grade mainly because of my size. I had a little skill. But, I was young and everybody was older. I sang in the chorus. I was in the student government. My senior year I was vice president of the student council. I played both sports and I was pretty good in academics. I probably should have been voted most athletic- but they couldn’t- because I was the only one who played both sports and played them pretty good. I guess they thought that was enough superlatives for best all around, “most versatile” they called it. And, I was also the first male to take typing in my junior year. And then the next year females couldn’t get in the class. There was a stigma. Typing was feminine. So, I sort of broke that barrier.
Founder and President of Phi Beta Lambda Student Business Honor Society
I read that you became President of the Phi Beta Lambda Student Business Honor Society. That was in college. I was the founding president of that. I was a pretty good student in accounting. The professor said, the first day, he said, “I’m looking for stars.” And, you know, they said, “Look to the right, look to the left, two of you probably won’t be here. Because you won’t have the seriousness or purpose to learn the subject matter.” I was motivated to learn the subject matter.
Was college hard? No, not really. I was prepared for college. In the fifth grade we were taught how to diagram compound, complex sentences with gerunds, infinitives, etcetera. So I knew the basic framework of the English language and I knew everything had a place and a purpose. And I knew how they interact together. Like we spent four weeks on the verb “to be”. Of course, we conjugated verbs and etcetera. Of course, the verb “to be” was a special one because it had no rules you either knew it or you didn’t. The teacher always told us, “No matter how intelligent you are, if you split the verbs people would not think you were intelligent.” So that was inculcated into us early, about, you know, how society viewed us as black kids, and I learned later as people in general.
Segregated, Apartheid System
But it was a segregated, apartheid system. There was no interaction with whites at all except for the occasional insurance agent or the blanket man. We called him blanket man. The guy would come into the black neighborhood selling blankets and towels and irons and things of that nature. I guess, they were the traveling salesmen.
Teachers were the Best and the Brightest
So our teachers were the best and the brightest and they taught us. And that was one of the benefits of segregation because their children attended the same schools so they had a vested interest in the schools. They didn’t live outside the community. They were there and they were intelligent and they understood what they were preparing us for. And we had the best of the best. Now the buildings and the books were different because we never had new books. The new books went to the white schools. We had books that were written in, hand me downs and etcetera, but we learned from those books.
James E. C. Perry’s College Graduation in 1966.
Do you have any special memories about your school life?
I had only positive experiences at every level. I mean, I didn’t mind studying. I would get my reports in on time, book reports, research paper and etcetera. I would go to the library, deal in the card catalog and just do it. If it meant staying up late at night I would do that. In college I would hang out with the fellows on the corner and when the shops closed at 9 o’clock I would go and study until 2 o’clock in the morning. Of course, they didn’t know that.
What were some of your experiences during the Civil Rights Movement?
Well, the entire Civil Rights Movement was intricately a part of my whole being even from the Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. Although I didn’t really understand the full impact of it, but I knew that things weren’t equal. By then I was ten years old. Ten or eleven. And, you know, you know whether or not there’s equality around you. You know whether or not you’re being treated like everybody else. Even though I was a happy kid within my milieu. I didn’t have to go outside, it was a cocoon more or less and I didn’t realize how poor we were because we ate, we had food, we had clothes, the house was clean, and my parents worked.
But, you know that there’s a sense of injustice all around you. You go to the bus station and there’s a white side. And the bus station is there, but there’s a barrier between them. You can see on the other side. And one said, “White” and one said, “Black”. No they didn’t say black. The word then was “colored”. And then they had “white water” and “colored water”, “white bathrooms” and “colored bathrooms”. Separate but never equal. And I knew that the Brown vs. the Board of Education meant there would be no more separate, but equal. And we had some adults formed a little demonstration.
Jim Crow Bonfire
A celebrating demonstration regarding the decision. And it just so happened that right by my house was a big church called Star Zion and it started from there right in front of my house. And I joined the procession as it went to the athletic field and the projects. They had a makeshift casket and in the casket was Jim Crow. And we thought he was dead and we had a bonfire. And we burned the casket in symbolism that Jim Crow was dead. That was my first conscious thing that I did.
Preachers were very, very important
Of course, as I grew older there were bus boycotts and demonstrations in the chain stores that had lunch counters and we’d sit in to demonstrate there. Under the guidance of another preacher. Preachers were very, very, important during the Civil Rights Movement particularly in the black community because they were independent. There could be no repercussions because their members supported them. Now had my father or somebody- my uncle was in it also, because he had a civil service job nobody could fire him- because they would always retaliate with monetary things where you couldn’t support your family.
So it’s interesting that the Civil Rights Movement was basically comprised of young people who had nothing to lose. Because they couldn’t fire us. And they couldn’t really connect us to the parents in most cases because the community was so insulated. They didn’t come in, we didn’t go out. So they didn’t really know who was there except they knew the people that worked for them and what they did. And, of course, most of the older people were conservative. When I say conservative, they were practical. They understood the ramifications and they understood what we were doing was dangerous and we could be killed.
I think around that time Emmett Till was killed, and, of course, everybody knew about that. And my parents and my mother in particular said – they called me Sonny – “Sonny, don’t go there, don’t do that.” And I did it anyway. Because you’re young and you don’t have a full appreciation for the danger. But, you know what you’re doing is not wrong and it’s right.
James Farmer, Director of the Congress of Racial Equality
So we would demonstrate, go to St. Peter’s Church which was the First Methodist Church, Black Methodist Church in the state of North Carolina. It was very historic. And the preacher there, his name was Reverend Hill. And we’d go down to church and meet there and we were taught the nonviolent, direct action approach. And we had people like James Farmer to come down who was the former Director of the Congress of Racial Equality. They called it CORE. And we had members from King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to teach us in nonviolent action. And how to act and react. And they would go through role playing. If somebody were to spit on you what would you do. And if they called you names and etcetera. So that was inculcated to us and so we hit the streets and demonstrated.
Demonstrations at Kress and Walgreens
We’d go to the restaurants, Kress and Walgreens. And we would sit down and, of course, we weren’t served. We’d go back the next day. Well, then during the summer it was kind of hot. This all took place when school was out. So we’d go demonstrate in the morning. They’d take us to the beach in the afternoon. Then finally somebody said, “Well, what if they served us?” We had no money. So they gave us a dollar in case we were served so we could pay for it. Of course, we were never served and you could keep the dollar. And we were kind of oblivious to the danger. While we could march downtown two by two in a very orderly manner, the whites would throw eight balls and nooses in front of you and etcetera. You know, they would taunt you from the side as we marched through there.
Eight Ball and a Noose
Of course, if you’re suppose to march downtown, I mean, you’re suppose to stay in your area and you’re going into their area so naturally they were going to react because you didn’t belong there. You were second class citizens. [You mean a pool ball, like a black eight ball? That could really hurt you.] No, no they didn’t hit us with it. They would put an eight ball on the ground inside of a noose. The eight ball represented a black head. It was predicated on ignorance and I understood that. I’m not sure how well I understood it. I knew it wasn’t right no matter what precipitated it. We were going against the status quo. And the status quo at that time was apartheid in America. You stay in your section. You stay in your place more or less and in America we’re not suppose to have a place.
LISTEN Part III (16:36)
Would you tell us about your service to our country during the Vietnam War?
Well, I was drafted right after college. Well, actually I started receiving notices in my sophomore, junior, and senior year. I received deferments while I was in college. So right after I graduated I received a notice that I was being drafted so I had to make a decision. Here I was a poor boy from the projects and I wanted to make some money and in Vietnam they were killing people. I mean it was real. I mean I understood the sense of what the world was about. Not what it was about, but the consequences of the people who partook in it. And I decided that since I wasn’t going to Canada and I wasn’t going to be a draft dodger that I would attend Officer Candidate School.
James E. C. Perry at Officer Candidate School, 1967.
Officer Candidate School
So, I volunteered for the draft in order to go to Officer Candidate School. So if I were going to be part of the military action I would go in there at a higher level than someone who was, we called them grunts, who you just tell them to go and do. I wanted to be the one to tell people to go and do. So as a consequence, I had to sign up for two years after basic training, advanced infantry training, and officer candidate school, that’s a total of nine months. And, as usual, I was the only one in my company – black.
White Ghettos and Black Ghettos
My first experience with white people was in the military. I was stationed at Fort Dixon, New Jersey for basic training and AIT. AIT is Advanced Infantry Training. And most of the white guys were from the south. It was their first experience also. The military is really made up of southern whites. I mean that’s the way they get out of their ghetto so to speak. Because there are white ghettos and there are black ghettos, I mean, and the sooner we understand that the better off we’re going to be. I mean, there are poor whites that are worse off than the worst black. I mean, when you look at television, of course, all you see is blacks are criminals and the whites are fine, but that’s not true.
And so, you get to know these guys and you get to see they have the same issues and problems and values that we do. And I could see that. And there were some ignorant whites and some ignorant blacks. And because you have this image of apartheid system and white is right, it’s always superior. But when you face it head on you see that that’s not true. And that’s part of the big lie. That’s part of what they don’t want you to see. During that time, is, you know, there’s really no difference.
Jewish College Instructors
So, that was my first experience. And I had white instructors in college. They were Jewish for the most part who were also a victim of the same racial superiority that they had at the time. They weren’t allowed to teach when they came over from Germany because of Hitler and that fascism. The white institutions would not allow them to teach there so they taught in historically black colleges. And we got the best of the best. Even Albert Einstein when he worked on the Princeton project that wasn’t at Princeton University that was in the town of Princeton. Because they wouldn’t allow Jews on their campus nor blacks. And the only university or school that Albert Einstein lectured at was Lincoln University which was a historical black college in Pennsylvania and Julian Bond’s father was the president.
And I didn’t mean to get off on a segue on Einstein, but just the idea of how ignorant this was. Here’s, this is, the smartest, a genius couldn’t go in certain places because he was Jewish. I mean that’s the ignorance of it. Higher education institutions went along with that. Of course, if you were black you definitely couldn’t go in. You could be genius if you wanted to be, but that was it. So it didn’t really mater. So we had a loss of brain power and everything else because of our absurd system. And some of the vestiges are still here today.
Do you wish to elaborate on the vestiges?
Yes, I will. You just asked a simple question that JFK asked before he signed the Civil Rights Bill. You know, and the same question can be asked today. How many white people would prefer to be in the position of black people in terms of treatment? If you think it’s fair and equal? And the answer would be none. And if it’s fair and equal why would you? Then obviously if everything is according to hull whites would volunteer to be put in the same place as blacks. And they wouldn’t because there’s a white privilege still. Even if you’re poor, you’re not subject to stop and frisk and being followed around when you go in the stores and being stopped by police.
I’ve been stopped by police. Yes, it doesn’t really matter. They didn’t know who I was. The hue of my skin makes a difference. Color and race matters. We’re not a colorblind society. I don’t want the society to be colorblind. I want you to recognize – because if it’s colorblind then things will go on as usual. You can’t really make changes that’s necessary. For a white person to say I wouldn’t mind changing places with a black person, when that happens, then we can be colorblind. But until that happens we can’t.
Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry and his wife, Adrienne Perry.
Diversity Class at Stetson University
My wife was a professor at Stetson and she told me they had a diversity class going on. There was an experiment put on by this professor, hypothetical. And this was in a class of all white students. And he asked them “Are you bias?” “No.” “Nobody wants to admit to being that.” And then he said, “All right we’re going to do an experiment. And this is temporary. I’m going to inject you with this serum that’s going to turn your skin black for a couple of days. Then we have the reverse serum to turn you back white. At the end of the two day experiment, oops, there’s something wrong with the serum. It can’t be reversed. What would you do?” “I would sue.” “How much would you sue for your whiteness?” “Millions of dollars.” So think about that. It’s a subject that’s not very comfortable for people to deal with, but it’s a subject that has to be dealt with in order to solve it. I mean you have to understand there’s implicit bias in this matter 100 percent. And explicit bias I thought was 20 percent, but it’s probably higher than that based on things that have happened pretty recently.
Anything in particular that you want to mention?
Well, I mean, the members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups feel emboldened by this election. And its indicated in the schools. Wherever you go. They come out of the woodwork into mainstreams. You have Wright Barr this guy who says he has the platform for white supremacists and he’s part of the President’s elect staff. That’s legitimizing it. And the media now are interviewing these white supremacists like David Duke, Spicer and etcetera and giving them a platform. Why should we be interviewing racists? You’re an avowed racist. No matter what they call themselves that’s what they are and they’re happy with the election. This is what they say, “That this President-elect supports us.” Now we feel that for the most part, but they feel it also. So why should we, you know, if somebody tells you that is what they believe why should you not believe them? You’re uncomfortable aren’t you? I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I don’t think it’s necessarily a black-white thing. It’s systemic. I mean people don’t have to recognize it’s been put to work and it’s still working.
Profiled by a black cop in Orlando
I mean I was stopped by a black cop one time. I was profiled by a black cop in Orlando. I was coming home from choir rehearsal over by John Young just pulled out of the church parking lot, was heading toward the East-West Expressway. Before I could get to the light on Old Winter Garden Road, my wife’s in the car, and the lights come on. I slowly pulled out of the parking lot, the light was red so I couldn’t go anyplace. So, I knew what the drill was. I rolled the windows down and put my hand on the steering wheel because I didn’t want there to be a mistake.
The white cop came to the back. The black cop came around the side to the window. And he said, “Oh, oh, Jim. How are you?” I said, “I’m fine, Frank. How are you?” Then he asked me how are my kids and etcetera. This guy used to work for me when I had a bus contract at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority at the airport to transport workers from the isolated parking lot to the terminal. So I knew him. And I see the white cop in the rearview mirror has his hand on his weapon because he doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what’s going on. And I said, “Frank, why did you stop me?” “Oh, oh, nothing.” I was driving a, I forgot what I was driving, a Mercedes, Lincoln, some car that I wasn’t supposed to be driving in that neighborhood. It was a profile.
When I was a judge, and I was a chief judge in Seminole County, I went to a meeting. I was on the Trial Court Budget Commission. Went to a meeting in Tampa at the Second District Court of Appeals Courthouse. We went over the night before and spent the night in the hotel and they transported us by van to the meeting at the Second District Courthouse which is shared, part of Stetson University Law School. The meeting was on the second floor so we filed out of the van, two vans, and go to the elevator. And my colleague got on the elevator and I go to get on the elevator and the guard asked me, “Where are you going?” Didn’t ask anybody else. My colleague said, “Oh, he’s with us.” So, I mean, it’s real. And it’s not something that you imagine. You’re not paranoid. It’s systemic is what I’m trying to tell you. You know you need to stay in your place. You don’t belong here. And that’s what I’ve been trying to fight my whole life. That’s the justice I’m talking about. Not just the name justice. The real justice. Simple justice is all I want. I don’t want nothing more, nothing less.
Land Wealth Precluded From Blacks
You know, and then they talk about affirmative action and the feeling was that blacks are being elevated because of affirmative action. The fact of the matter is whites have always had affirmative action. Back to the Homestead Act, back in the 1600s-1700s and I think it ended like in 1932 where whites were given land and given money to run it. And after a certain period of time they would own the land acres. And blacks were precluded from going into there and that’s where most of the wealth has come from.
The GI Bill
The GI Bill made the middle class and blacks were precluded from even joining the military. And the few that got in they weren’t given the same opportunities that whites were. And the Dixiecrats legislature, they were really smart guys in terms of protecting their turf. Because they had seniority. And when they came up with those race neutral programs like the GI Bill which sounds good and it was good. But they wanted state’s rights and the state’s control it. And the states had the same values and culture that they wanted to keep in place. And they ran it on a state by state level. So you’re still faced with the same systemic problem and that’s the fact of life. It’s in and it’s never been eradicated. It’s still there on a certain level. These are the vestiges I’m talking about.
LISTEN Part IV (19:14)
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.
James E. C. Perry, left, at his law school graduation in 1972.
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 congressmen 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.”
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 another. 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.
James E. C. Perry, second from the right, with his law school classmates standing in front of the United States Supreme Court, 1971.
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 multi state examination. So I decided to, along with another colleague of mine, Jack LaSon, 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 worked 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, they 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 it began in February 1973. They passed 11 of the 16 plaintiffs including me, and 13 others passed 24 blacks. In 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 with 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.
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.
James E. C. Perry serving as Vice President of SEEDCO, 1975.
What was the area like when you came here working for SEEDCO, the Seminole Economic Development Commission?
It was like Vietnam in certain areas. I mean it was really very tragic situations: poor, backwards, street flooding when it rained. People living in shacks, lean-to’s. It was worse than any slum I’ve seen in New York and I’ve seen some slums. People that were basically migrant workers. But they were, this was their home base. They worked in the orange groves and celery, etcetera, during the season. Then they would go up to Rochester and work in the apple orchards in the winter and, it was horrendous. I mean, that’s the reason the program was there in the first place was to come up with jobs, and employment situations, was to hire these people so they wouldn’t be migratory. And that was the whole goal and it didn’t work. But, that’s what we were trying to do.
Law Office in Sanford
I opened a law office in Sanford, that’s where my base was, and I did legal work for Seminole Economic Development Commission. And, you know, clients, I was the only black lawyer in the county at that time, Seminole County. And I received offers, but I wanted to see if I could do it on my own. And after a year I formed a partnership with Noris Woolfork and we had law offices in Orlando on Parramore Street and in Sanford.
Attorney James E. C. Perry in his Orlando law office, 1985.
Matter of fact, the office in Sanford was Dr. Stark’s office. Dr. Stark was the black doctor who, coincidentally when Harry T. and Harriett V. Moore were killed they put a bomb under their bedroom on Christmas Day in 1951 in Mims, Florida; the Klan did by the way. [Dr. Stark] He was the field secretary for the NAACP. He was considered the most dangerous man in Florida by the establishment. And all he wanted to do was: he wanted voter registration, parenting pay for teachers, he was against lynching, and he was probably the most prominent black man in the state at the time. He registered over a 100,000 people to vote. That made him dangerous. Voter suppression, I mean. You still hear these same tactics are being used today. And they wouldn’t take them [Harry T. and Harriet V. Moore] to the hospital in Brevard County. So they drove State Road 46A to Sanford and, of course, they wouldn’t take them in that hospital either. Dr. Stark had a big enough office and that’s where they brought them and they died there. We’re talking about ’51.
Your law firm served as general counsel for the Florida Chapter of the NAACP. Were there particular cases or experiences that stand out in your mind that people in this area should know about?
Well, a lot of cases. We were part of initial redistricting in 1990, 1991. When we didn’t have any black representatives in Congress. We were a part of that initial lawsuit. The initial lawsuit, we got three black Congress people from Florida: Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings, Carrie Meek down in south Florida. So you accomplished something.
Well, there were a lot of accomplishments. We were involved in getting rid of the fleeing felon law where police would shoot people if they were running from them. We were a part of that. A lot of discrimination in employment, etcetera, etcetera. I mean, it was worthwhile work. You know, now that I think about it. I hadn’t really thought about it because, you know, when you’re in the struggle you just take one step at a time. You don’t really think about the impact you’re having until you look back and we have conversations like this. I hadn’t really thought about it.
Jaimon Perry, Willis Perry, and Kamilah Perry with their father, Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry.
LISTEN Part V (15:28)
Speaking of accomplishments, you created the Jackie Robinson Athletic Association, a baseball program serving 650 at risk boys and girls. It became the largest in the nation. How did that come about?
Well, it came about when President Clinton signed the three strikes you’re out legislation and I knew exactly what that meant. And I knew that blacks were disproportionately represented in the penal system. And I knew that criminologists could determine when kids were in K-3 how many prison beds to build for 20 years out and be right on the money. I also knew that the majority, 95 percent of the people in the penal system are illiterate or semi-illiterate. And it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy if you can tell within kindergarten how many prison beds to build for 20 years later. So I was trying to short circuit that in Orange County. And, I wasn’t really a baseball fan. But it’s in the summer and I decided that when I was growing up, we had a Little League, the churches did, and in order to play on the team you had to go to Sunday School. And to go to Sunday School you have to be able to read these little cards. And the deacons and the people in church were the coaches.
So you had a mentoring system. We didn’t call it that then, but that’s basically what it is. So I figured that same structure could probably work here. So I went to the churches first. I said, “Well, why don’t you guys start it?” And they said, “Well, let us study it.” Then I went to some of the other black organizations. I said, “Well, here’s the plan. Why don’t you do it?” “Well, we have study it.” And I knew the urgency of the matter. What is there to study?
Leadership from Males and Females
So my idea was not just to have kids playing baseball, but it was a structural game with leadership from males and females and they would be the mentors. Plus I had a tutorial portion added to it where they were required to come to tutorials every night. And really I hadn’t plan to spend as much time in it as I did because the idea was I was going to pass it on to these community organizations to run it. But nobody would step up. And I said, we would name the teams after the teams in the Negro Baseball League. Of course, I got push back. Kids don’t know who that is. Well, I know they don’t that’s why we’re going to teach them that. I mean teach them about the Black Yankees, Birmingham Barons, Kansas City Monarchs, and etcetera, Homestead Grays.
So that’s how it started. Then I started recruiting people to coach and I knew that they didn’t necessarily know anything about baseball. So I coalesced with the Little League here and they had programs to teach people how to coach. Because it wasn’t really about winning a baseball game. It was about, are you a good person? Can you mentor these kids? Because a lot of these kids had never been a part of anything organized. And, you know, the fact of the matter is, kids are going to be a part of a group. The only question is whether it’s controlled or not. So I was trying to give them a controlled environment to make them study. To make them want to learn. Baseball was simply a carrot to get them in. If I come in and say, “All right kids we’re going to have a membership program with tutorial.” How many do you think would come in? None. So I raised the money for the baseball team with equipment and etcetera, etcetera. And I had a little bit of credibility in the community so I could do that. And it was successful?
Girls Could Play on the Girls’ Team or the Boys’ Team
It was very successful. The parents told me years later, some kids even got into college playing baseball. It became a feeder for the high school teams. And, it was boys and girls. It wasn’t just boys. I had female and male coaches from T-ball on up. So the girls got to play baseball? Of course. They could play on the girls’ team or the boys’ team, we didn’t really care. And that was in the 90’s? Yes, it was in the 90’s. Were there many girls that played on the boys’ teams? A few. So they had to be really good, right? They were good. You know girls and women, they didn’t have any bad habits. They were more susceptible to learning because they had been kept out of certain programs. So just like golf, women can learn to play golf better than men because we have these bad habits playing baseball and different swings, playing tennis. And women do it by the numbers, by the book, and they excel at it.
The Sanlando Greyhounds
You also managed a basketball team and I read that the Sanlando Greyhounds captured the Florida 14 and under state title. Well, we won the state title, I think I started when the kids were 11. We won the state title every year. And that’s kind of where I got this idea from. The players on the teams were also good students. So I couldn’t advertise. I had to raise money for that also. A lot of these kids were at risk. [They] had never been in a restaurant, had never been on a plane, and we traveled all over the country. We flew to Seattle, Washington, St. Louis, Memphis, Franklin, Kentucky, Louisville, Arkansas. So I couldn’t market them as black kids playing basketball. These guys had about a 3.0 GPA also. So people want to give. So that was the whole idea in terms of academics and athletics. Because that’s what I did.
Did the kids that were playing actually get to meet you?
Oh, sure. I was there everyday. I was at practice. They knew me. And they knew you were an attorney? Oh, they knew I was attorney, yes. Oh, here it is, “Heaven Sent”, I think this was in Orlando Magazine or something. So I was actually involved in it. And you still had your legal practice at the same time, right? And it went lacking some, yes, because this was strictly volunteer. I had to motivate the coaches, motivate the parents, and mostly the parents more than anything else. I had the parents come to the games. They would complain about the coaching. And I said, “Listen, you can’t complain about my coaches unless you’re willing to volunteer. If you’re willing to volunteer, I’ll accept your complaint. Because you have to be part of the solution not just crying about the problem.” And I also learned something. I learned if people get things for free, if they don’t have to put any skin in the game, there’s no real appreciation for it. So after that, I asked them to pay $10.00. Just $10.00. Because unless they have to pay something, they think it has no value.
You’re known for your legal skills and abilities. What makes a good lawyer? Is it just being smart?
Well, you know, I never thought I was smart. I never did. I guess when you go back to my grade school, and they put me in the upper tier. Everybody in that class was smart so therefore nobody thought they were smart. I thought everybody else got the same treatment, but they didn’t. So I guess that’s some thing we need to get out of the way. And I didn’t really realize that, but I graduated from law school and I had a meeting in Washington with the Reginald Heber Smith Program. And I interacted with one of my high school classmates, who, we played basketball together on the basketball team. And we were having dinner and he said, “You know Perry, you were always smart.” I said, “What?” He said, “No, we didn’t get the same treatment that you guys received. We were just taught not to behave badly. We weren’t taught anything.” And I said, “Wow.” That’s when I realized that even the system, the segregated system that I went through was not equal to all. And he said, “I finally,” – he was a good artist and he went to drafting school and got his certification in design and building and etcetera. He said, “I didn’t realize until I got out that I had the ability to do something.”
To whom much is given much is expected.
So that’s, I guess, that was always inculcated into my mindset. You asked me about being a lawyer. It depends upon what motivates you. See money never motivated me. I was kind of an enigma to a lot of people because they didn’t understand what made me tick. And it wasn’t money, that didn’t float my boat. They asked me about my motives for the Jackie Robinson Little League. Why are you doing this? Do you have a child in this? No, my youngest child is a junior in college. I don’t know any of these kids. It’s not about me. It’s about to whom much is given much is expected.
And my reason for going to law school, I didn’t tell you this part about the dean calling me at law school. Calling me about my third year and he noticed I hadn’t applied to interview for any jobs on Wall Street because that’s what you were expected to do at Columbia. You made 25 to 30,000 a year. And I told him I didn’t come here to work on Wall Street. Didn’t. So he didn’t ask me that question again.
So it depends on what motivates you. If your motivation is to make this a better place, become a public servant, and that’s basically what I’ve been all of my life is a public servant. It’s never been about me. It’s never been about my children because my children are going to be fine because education begins at home. And they are fine. But, you know, they need somebody to interact with.
I tell people the purpose of the courts in my view is to protect the poor from the rich and the rich from the mob. Because there are more of them then everybody else. The mob that is. And if we don’t do something to make life better, to give people hope. If there’s no hope, life isn’t important, my life, your life, and their life. A lot of these kids in these gangs, now they’re going to be in a gang. The only question is if the gang is a positive gang or a negative gang.
Because with the Little League, we had our colors, we had our uniforms. And one parent told me that the kid slept in the uniform at night. Being a part of something. So that’s very, very, very important. What it takes to be a good lawyer is what it takes to be a good person. Because if you’re a bad person you can be a bad lawyer. It’s going to increase exponentially the higher you get. Whatever you are it increases exponentially. The higher you go. If you’re a bad person and you’re elevated to a certain level, you can become a worse person because you have more power. The higher you go the worse you become. If you’re a good person then the reverse is true….
LISTEN Part VI (19:44)
Justice James E. C. Perry, the first African-American appointed to the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, is pictured here at his Circuit Court Investiture in March of 2000.
In the year 2000 you became the first black judge to serve in the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit.
Circuit judge. There were two kinds of court judges in Brevard County. I know one, were there one or two, I think there were two. Seminole County never had any.
Three years later you were chosen as Chief Judge in that circuit and you became the first black Chief Judge in the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit.
Well, I understand that when I was first appointed that I was ostracized the first year. Of course, I didn’t know it because I’m accustomed to being by myself anyway. And then two years later I was approached to ask to run for Chief Judge because there hadn’t been a Chief Judge in Seminole County in 13 years. Because the majority of judges were in Brevard County they voted for their own and vice versa. So I asked them, “Why me?” You know, and then, judges here for 15, 20 years wanted to be Chief and I didn’t. And they said, “You’re the only one that we all trust.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “I need you to understand and we will support you, county and circuit, in the county. ” And I said, “Now you understand I’m not going to be a titular head nor your lapdog.” They said, “We understand that. We understand we might not agree with all your decisions, but we know your decisions won’t be personal or political.” I said, “Okay.” I just want you to understand that.” And they said, “Don’t tell anybody.” I said, “No, I don’t operate like that. I’m going to tell the other side what I plan to do.”
So I went to the incumbent to ask him what does an incumbent chief do? He said, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. We already have the heir apparent.” And I said, “Well, I wasn’t really asking your permission, I was simply wanting to know what you do.” And I said, “By the way I talked with heir apparent and heir apparent said he’ll support me.” “He said, “We’ll see about that.”
So he went and talked with heir apparent, heir apparent said he’ll support me. And I told him I’d support him the next time. So the incumbent said, “Well, I’m going to run.” I said, “Fine.” I never would have put my hat in the ring had you said you wanted to run again. But since, you know, you changed your mind that’s on you.” So he proceeded to talk with the county court judges in my county promising them things to support him. And he did. So they called me in, the county court judges and said, “He promised this, this, what do you promise?” I said, “I don’t promise you a damn thing except I’ll be fair.” I said, “I didn’t promise Jeb Bush anything. I’m not promising you anything. You asked me to do this. My ego’s not at stake here. If this is the way you want to do it it’s not going to be done.”
So the deputy court administrator went over to Brevard County and talked with the Chief. And he said, “I understand Jim talked with the county court judges.” He said, “What did he promise them?” He said, “He didn’t promise them a damn thing.” He said, “Good for him. I’m supporting Jim.” So I got it unanimously. And, you know, I never had a problem. I got nothing but cooperation. The circuit, the county circuits, was split and I was able to bring them together by not showing favoritism. Just doing what’s right. And I knew it wasn’t based on personality or politics. I thought if we are the Eighteenth Circuit then we should be unified. So, I called a meeting of every judge in the circuit. Never been a meeting like that before and they all showed up. I made it mandatory. And we had a diversity training session and we took a picture. All the judges in the circuit at one place at one time. It’s never been done before. And the next year after my term, they elected the judge from Brevard as the Chief. It’s been switched every two years ever since.
So, that’s cooperation.
I don’t know. It could be leadership.
Seminole County Courthouse portrait of Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry. In this 2011 photo, Justice Perry is pictured on the upper level with his family. Pictured from left to right are children, Kamilah Perry, Willis Perry, his wife, Adrienne Perry, and son, Jaimon Perry.
Well, I did read in the Florida Bar Journal, they said that you helped bridge Seminole and Brevard counties and foster camaraderie in the Eighteenth Circuit by having judges rotate duties and get to know each other.
Yeah, right, that’s what I did. We instituted a program when the judges had a light schedule in this county and needed help in Brevard County and we scheduled days and vice versa. So, I mean, the cultures are totally different in the county. I mean, you wouldn’t believe it. It’s just like Orange and Seminole counties. The cultures are totally different. And a lot of times everybody thinks we’re superior because you don’t know how other people do things. But once you change them over and they say, “Oh, that makes sense. That makes sense then.” There’s more cooperation and more diversity so to speak.
On March 11, 2009 you became the 85th Justice of the Florida Supreme Court and you will retire on December 30th of this year, 2016. I read that you said that it was the hardest job you’ve ever had…
Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry receiving his appointment as the 85th Justice to the Florida Supreme Court by Governor Charlie Crist, March 11, 2009.
Being a justice, I guess particularly for me, it was hard because my whole tenure as a circuit judge I was on the civil side and because I knew the civil side and I would dare say about 65% of the cases in the Supreme Court deal with the death penalty. Because we have original jurisdiction there, that appellate jurisdiction. It doesn’t go to the district courts. All death cases come directly to the Supreme Court. Although I handled criminal cases when I was practicing even death cases, laws have changed over the time so you had to get up to speed in the nomenclature and what various cases stood for because they talk in terms of shorthand and there’s no prep course for the Supreme Court. Once you’re there, you’re a justice, you’re all equal. In the Constitutional Offices you have no boss. You’re your own boss. You have to get up to speed quickly and that was the difficult part. It wasn’t necessarily difficult. If you have self discipline, which I claim to have, you do what you have to do to get where you need to be.
Are there any particular insights from your experience you want to share?
Well, I can’t talk about cases. I guess, the part I would like the public to know, I would like the public to be aware of our judicial system. We have three branches of government. They’re suppose to be separate and independent. It’s a system of checks and balances. Some people believe the Supreme Court should be independent to through the executive or legislative branch, but that’s not how the system was set up. Federally nor statewide. We’re not a political office. Although they say that we’re not elected that’s not true.
Federal judges aren’t elected and justices aren’t elected, but the State Supreme Court Justices are elected. We stand for merit retention every six years. And, if we don’t get the votes we’re out. so that’s a misnomer. And they like to say that we’re making rulings, unelected people making rulings, but that’s not true. But we are elected and we’re making rulings based upon the constitution. And we understand the separation of powers and authority. And the Supreme Court is the weakest branch of the government. We don’t have the shield or the sword. We don’t have the money. We don’t allocate what money we get. It’s all allocated by the legislature. We don’t have a national guard or police force. So the public has to depend on our integrity and us doing the right thing and to believe that the sense of fairness comes from ourselves or we become an nullity.
So it’s very important that people understand that and the judiciary has to be independent. It doesn’t mean we’re independent to make decisions we want to make. It’s independent to make sure that decisions we make is not influenced by money or politics or anything else. That’s the independence that the people need to understand. And, I guess, the most current thing is most people couldn’t name one Supreme Court Justice in the state of Florida.
Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry pictured with Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente and Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Ann Quince.
Civic Education and Public Participation
At the election before the last, I’m not sure about what the statistics were in the last election, but in 2012 a half a million people who voted for the top of the ticket, that is the governor, did not vote for Supreme Court Justices. Did not vote at all. And if you asked people who the Supreme Court Justices are they couldn’t name one. Nor do they understand our role. That’s why you need civic education. And you know, our system requires participation of the public. It’s not where you just sit back and watch like you watch a football game. Because we the people mean all of us. And I would encourage people to participate. Not just vote, but to run for public office. And start at the lowest level and do your part. If everybody does a little then we can accomplish a lot. But if you sit back and wait for the special interest to take care of you, they will not take care of you. You have to take care of yourself.
You’ve been honored with numerous awards for public service. There are lists of them.
The Puerto Rican Bar Association Moot Court Competition Award
Key to the City of Titusville Award
Florida Memorial University President’s Award
North Brevard County Branch NAACP’s Award of Appreciation
Seminole County NAACP Humanitarian Award
Orange County Chapter NAACP Paul C. Perkins Award
Martin Luther King Drum Major Award for Social Justice
Key to the City of New Bern, North Carolina
Williams Johnson Outstanding Jurist of the Year Award Brevard and Seminole County Bar Associations
In 2005 the United Negro College Fund selected you as one of four individuals to be profiled during its national broadcast of An Evening of Stars, a Celebration of Educational Excellence. Would you describe what that experience was like for you?
Well, it was pretty much an interview like we have today, but only there were cameras and etcetera. I didn’t attend the evening, but it was televised throughout the nation. You know, basically you just tell your story. It’s unique to you. You know it. You’re not really impressed with it. But, I guess, you are impressed that people are impressed with what you’ve accomplished. But there are millions of stories like mine. Maybe they don’t rise to the same level, but I understand that what I’ve achieved in life is an honor. And it’s public trust in something I’m very proud of and I don’t mean to minimize it. But, I guess, while you’re going through the process you don’t really think of it that way.
Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court Peggy Ann Quince Swearing in Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry.
For instance, a lot of people have never met a Supreme Court Justice, but I’m around them all the time. I try to tell my colleagues it’s important that we get out into the public so that we can demystify this whole process. Let them know that we’re just human beings the way they are. We have the same values, the same problems they have. We catch a cold, put our pants on at the same time and we just try to make the best decisions we can make with what we have. And the time to make relationships is not when you need them. It’s not when you’re in trouble. It’s before you get in trouble. You form relationships and when you need to call you already have them. You can’t make them when you need them.
So I’m trying to get them to understand that. And some of them understand it. But some are just introverted. I’m an introvert. I’m a people person. I’m a public servant who likes the public. All public servants don’t like the public. They think, some think the public should serve them as opposed to serving the public. I’m not talking about my colleagues, but just in general, public servants in general.
Where do you think your values for public service come from?
I have no idea. It certainly didn’t come from wealth and privilege. I know where it didn’t come from. It didn’t come from wealth and privilege. I have no idea. I don’t know. It’s a sense that somehow I felt that I could make a difference. Now, where it came from, I don’t have a clue. It could have come from my grandmother that I didn’t like or I thought that didn’t like me. It could have. But on my mother’s side there were public servants there also.
I guess I was privileged. I was privileged to have love. I was privileged to have encouragement. I was privileged to be told I’m no better than anybody else and nobody’s any better than I am. It’s a privilege to not feel inferior to anybody or anything. A lot of people don’t have that. And it’s the audacity to even try.
What message would you like to share with future generations?
I thought my whole talk was a message to future generations. To be engaged. To be a part of it. We the people – all you. And it’s all of us collectively should control our destiny. Not a few. Not the special interests. Not the lobbyists. Unless you have a lobby group. You have to lobby for yourself. And the majority of the people don’t have a lobby group. Because you can’t afford to come together collectively to pay them. We have to make sure that our politicians are accountable to us. We the people and not the lobbyists who represent special interests. And I don’t have a problem with special interests, but special interests need to be aware of what happens out in the greater community that they’re impacting. It’s not just a few. But if everybody doesn’t rise together then they’ll be chaos and anarchy. And that’s what I’m afraid of.
And that goes back to your quote about defending the poor from the rich and the rich from the mob?
Precisely. It’s a circular rationale.
Interview: Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: December 19, 2016
Place: Orlando Public Library
All photos courtesy of the Florida Supreme Court Justice James E. C. Perry Archives.