Rep. Demetrius C. Newton dedicated his life to improving the human condition, first as a civil rights attorney and later as a politician and public servant. But his efforts were frequently hindered by the nearly implacable obstacle known as racism.
Newton was born in Fairfield, Ala., in 1928. At the time, blacks in America — particularly those living in the South — were forced to live segregated lives. Black children couldn’t attend schools with white children. They were unable to access goods and services, banned from playing professional sports or working in certain professions, denied the right to marry outside their own race, kept from serving on juries and barred from voting unless they passed “literacy tests” or paid poll taxes.
Amidst this environment, Newton knew he would have to leave Alabama to obtain a decent education. He traveled to Ohio to study economics and political science at Wilberforce University, the oldest private African-American university in the United States. When Newton decided to become a lawyer, the state of Alabama paid for him to attend law school out of state so it wouldn’t have to integrate the University of Alabama School of Law or create a separate one for black students.
After earning his Juris Doctor from Boston University in 1952, Newton returned to Birmingham with one goal in mind: to help protect the rights of the downtrodden. He became a civil rights attorney, and started a law firm with U.W. Clemon, who later became Alabama’s first black federal judge, and Oscar Adams, the first black Alabama Supreme Court justice and the first African-American elected to statewide office.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Newton represented icons of the civil rights movement — including Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — but he also aided the foot soldiers of the cause, the people arrested during demonstrations in Birmingham. He filed a number of lawsuits that sought the inclusion of African-Americans on juries and supported the rights of protesters to march in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He also represented his friend Carl Baldwin, who was arrested by Birmingham police for trying to sit in the whites-only waiting room at the train station. That lawsuit challenged segregation in interstate and intrastate travel. These efforts were later documented in the film “Preserving Justice.”
Newton knew the law could only go so far, so he decided to delve into politics as well. He became the city attorney for Birmingham, then worked as a judge for the city of Brownville for six years. In 1986, Newton was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, serving the 53rd district (western Birmingham in Jefferson County). He would represent the district as a Democrat in the state house for the next 27 years.
Newton was the first black person to serve as Speaker Pro Tem, the No. 2 position in the House behind the speaker, and held that position from 1998 until 2010. He was also chair of the Legislative Council for both the House and the Senate.
A champion of constitutional reform, Newton firmly believed that Alabama’s constitution, which an all-white, all-male assembly proposed in 1901, was both outdated and racist. He spent much of his lengthly political career pushing for lawmakers and voters to create a new one.
“Our constitution is sick and it is on life support and the time is near and we ought to give it a dignified death,” Newton said in 2006. Alas, his efforts were repeatedly defeated.
Although he often disagreed with Republicans on key issues, Newton was highly regarded by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
“Debates in the House often have to compete with noise generated by side conversations and members going about their business, but when Demetrius took to the podium, the Chamber would hush,” House Majority Leader Micky Hammon (R) stated. “That’s evidence of the respect he commanded.”
Another sign of respect was the fact that Newton was allowed to retain his seat in the front row of the Chamber, even when Republicans took over the majority. The seat was normally reserved for members of the Leadership, yet the newly elected Caucus unanimously agreed that Newton should remain.
“He was a fine gentleman, and we had a strong mutual respect for each other. He will be greatly missed, not only by his own constituents — but also by the entire state of Alabama,” Gov. Robert Bentley (R) said.
Newton was a member of the Alabama, National and American Bar Associations, the American Judicature Society, the NAACP, 101 Black Men and the Vulcan Gold Club. He was the former national president of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and the Wilberforce University Alumni Association, and past president and chief executive officer of the Birmingham Urban League. Outside of the office, Newton enjoyed traveling, golf, attending the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Birmingham and spending time with his two children from a past marriage.
Newton died on Sept. 11. Cause of death was not released. He was 85.