Growing up, James Perry helped his dad sell little blue books for 50 cents each. The Gospel in Poetry, by Glado Alonzo Perry. James was the only kid in the projects whose daddy wrote poetry. But James never read any of it. He hated the man. His dad had a first-grade education and operated a lathe at a veneer plant in their little town of New Bern, N.C. He had borrowed $50 from an uncle to publish his little book of poems in 1952. James didn't really understand, or care, how remarkable it was for an uneducated black man to publish a book of poetry at the time. He was just a kid. All he knew was that his dad forgot Christmas. He never showed up at a football game or a basketball game. James would not grow up like his father. He would go on to high school, to college, and to law school. His dad would miss all three graduations. James wouldn't pick up one of those little blue books again for 40 years.
There's an opening on Florida's Supreme Court. Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to fill it this week.
The seven justices on the highest court in the state handle death penalty cases and appeals. Three of them, all men, were appointed by Crist.
Twice recently, Crist complained that nominating commissions had not sent him enough ethnic minorities for other judicial appointments. There have been three blacks on the Florida Supreme Court, including its current chief justice, Peggy A. Quince, who was appointed in 1999. But statewide, only 7 percent of judges are black and 7 percent are Hispanic.
Last week, Crist interviewed the candidates: two white men, a white woman and a black man.
One was Circuit Judge James E.C. Perry, Seminole County's first black judge, son of a poet.
Every day should be Father's Day.
With every girl and boy,
Father is the life and the way
To happiness and joy.
Glado Alonzo Perry
James Perry's past beckons him like a poorly fitting suit. In his memory are glimpses of how he might have ended up. He remembers tobacco fields. Juice from the wide, flat leaves stinging his eyes. Potato fields. The frustration of not earning enough to cover lunch.
He worked in the North Carolina fields just a day here and there, but it was enough to teach him that he wanted a different life. He daydreamed about offices. He was the first male at his all-black high school to take typing. He promised his mother she could move in with him when he made it out of the projects.
He was captain of the football team and the basketball team. He grew to 6 feet 4. He had no money for college, and no real plan, until an opportunity emerged from nowhere.
Days before he graduated, the football coach from St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., showed up at his high school and asked him to play.
He was off to college on a student loan. The first in his family.
His dad said: "I hear you're a good athlete."
He is the only race on earth
That doesn't cooperate
But just the same the Negro's worth
Is all over the state.
Law school had been another one of those split-second decisions. After college, he worked for IBM as a junior accountant. He was drafted into the Army and went to officer school.
But the night Martin Luther King Jr. died, he made a decision. Most of the justice-seekers are preachers.
They need lawyers.
He went to Columbia Law School in New York on a scholarship and graduated in 1972.
He wanted to go south, to fight for civil rights. But in those days, it was hard for a black man to pass the bar. He checked. Some Southern states didn't pass any blacks. Georgia, a state with 38 practicing black attorneys, typically let through several a year.
So with his new wife, Adrienne, in a red ragtop MG, he headed south to Georgia. His mother followed.
In Atlanta, he joined about 850 law school graduates at a convention center to take the bar exam. They had to submit photographs with their applications. The test took three days.
Fifty African-Americans took the test. Not one passed.
Perry, his wife, and his mom lived in Augusta, Ga., a town with two black lawyers. He called all the other blacks who didn't pass the bar and asked them to get together in Atlanta.
He wanted to sue. He thought racism was involved.
"You'll be blackballed for life if you do this," one of them told him.
Only 16 joined him. They sued in federal court.
Four months later, in February 1973, he took the bar exam again. This time, 24 blacks passed, including himself. Six months after that, another 24 blacks passed.
The lawsuit was dismissed. But the point was made.
It's very pitiful to say —
After such sacrifice —
That there are parents living today
Who give the wrong advice.
He has been a circuit judge for nearly a decade. He didn't think voters in the circuit would elect a minority, so he put in for appointments. It took 10 years. Finally, in 2000, he became the first black judge in the 18th Judicial Circuit, which includes Seminole and Brevard County. Then later, he became the first black chief judge. His record is fairly clear though the Florida Bar admonished him after his law partner mishandled a case and he failed to let them know.
On his office walls, his life is laid out in mosaic. His diplomas. Photos of his wife, once the mayor of Longwood and now a professor at Stetson University. His three grown children, two of them lawyers, one in Tampa. Lots of golf and basketball paraphernalia. Tickets, blankets, statues. Plaques commemorating the at-risk youth baseball league he started for 650 kids.
And a framed copy of the book, The Gospel in Poetry, by Glado Alonzo Perry. Under glass.
As a judge, lawyers and other judges say he is known for his easygoing temperament. From the bench he dispenses decisions firmly but pleasantly. He's willing to laugh.
He lets everyone have their say, often when other judges might cut someone off.
"He's not typical at all," says Clayton D. Simmons, chief judge of the 18th Judicial Circuit. "He's low-key and he'll listen to the point where it no longer makes sense to listen."
He has learned, in a lifetime of judging people and being judged, sometimes there's more to the story.
To all Negroes who are in the lead:
Don't forget self control,
And try to be leaders, indeed,
With sunlight in your soul
“Mother, you have one of Daddy's books?"
It was 1991. By then he had raised his family, worked as an attorney, done everything he could to be the exact opposite of his father. He doted on his children, managed his son's basketball team and went to every one of his daughter's piano and ballet recitals, dropped "I love you's" like leaves in fall.
His mother reached under her bed and pulled out a little blue book.
He read it over the next few weeks, once, twice, three times.
Sixty-two poems full of philosophical observations about women, marriage, parenting, segregation, gambling and alcohol, pride and religion.
Real Love. Father's Day. A Parent's Duty. The Prodigal Son.
He tries to imagine his dad writing all these poems. He can't.
Inside those pages was a man he never knew. A man quite like himself.
Last week, Perry turned the pages and read the poems again. When he got to Father's Day, he had to laugh.
"My father set an example of what not to be," Perry says. "When I read this book it seems paradoxical. It talks of family and love and . . ."
He trails off.
"When I read this, I say, 'Wow, maybe he did love me.' Because you couldn't tell by his actions."
In those pages, he finds his own values and philosophies. Maintaining his good name. Pureness of heart. Humility. Faith. Respect. Fighting for what's right. Justice.
In 2000, the same year he was appointed to the 18th Judicial Circuit, Perry had 5,000 copies of the book published. He gave them out like peppermints.
He calls it his legacy.
Do unto others as you would
Have them do unto you
Try to accomplish something good . . .
Be loving, kind and true
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.