‘Anything is possible’: Justice James Perry honored for service, civil rights legacy

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — Growing up in the projects of North Carolina in the 1950s, Justice James Perry never imagined a courthouse would be etched with his name.

Construction is already underway on the new courthouse annex building in Seminole County that will bear Perry’s name.

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“I’m ecstatic, this exceeds all expectations,” Perry said. “My ancestors come from the projects, having this named after you is amazing. "

It’s been a long, hard-fought road for Perry to get to where he is now. He’s spent a lifetime demonstrating against the injustices he’s seen against African Americans.

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He attended Columbia Law School, and his daughter Kamilah Perry said while most grads went to Wall Street, her father chose a different path.

“His goal was to go to law school to fight (for) civil rights, so he was determined to go back down south,” she said. “And he wanted to go back to North Carolina, where he was from, but he was not allowed to take the bar there.

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So he went to South Carolina, where the door was also slammed in his face. He ended up going to Georgia, where Perry took the bar with about 30 other African American students. Every single one of them failed.

“But all of the white students had passed. So it seemed like something was off there,” he said.

So he sued the state of Georgia for racial discrimination.

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While the federal lawsuit played out in Georgia, Perry moved to Florida for a job opportunity. The next time he took the bar exam in Georgia, he passed, along with 23 other African Americans.

“So the state of Georgia stopped failing African American candidates after my father’s lawsuit. So that’s huge,” Kamilah said.

Perry went on to be the 85th justice of the Florida Supreme Court. He was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2000 to serve as chief judge of the circuit.

PHOTOS: Justice James Perry through the years

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His law career spurred many others to join the profession, including two of his children, who are now attorneys.

“He wasn’t a helicopter parent, he just led by example,” Kamilah said. “And he showed us what the right thing was and told us what decency was, and ethics was and integrity was.”

But it wasn’t just his own children who looked up to Perry.

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Bruce Mount, the son of Eatonville’s former mayor, met Perry when he was a senior in high school trying to figure out how to pay for his undergrad degree. The next thing he knew, Perry helped him get a full scholarship.

“He said, ‘If you want to go into law, just do it,’” Mount said. “And the rest is history. I enrolled in FAMU College of Law in 2007. And here I am today.”

The former judge also became a pillar in the community, founding the Jackie Robinson Sports Association, which serves 650 at-risk youth.

WATCH: How Jackie Robinson’s path to integrating baseball ran through Central Florida

Long after Perry is gone, he hopes his name and his legacy will inspire others.

“Anything is possible. If you can conceive it, you can achieve it,” Perry said. “And to see somebody who comes from my background, do this … then they know it’s possible.”

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Jeff Levkulich

Jeff Levkulich, WFTV.com

Jeff Levkulich joined the Eyewitness News team as a reporter in June 2015.

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.