By Chris Hoenig
Famed civil-rights attorney Demetrius Newton has died after a long illness. He was 85.
When Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were arrested in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil-rights movement, they turned to Newton, then a private-practice attorney, to represent them in court. He would go on to serve as Birmingham’s city attorney before joining the state legislature in 1986.
“He was very close to the movement. What was done in Birmingham set the tone for the rest of the nation,” said former Alabama State Senator Charles Steele, now the CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Newton’s death on Sept. 11 comes just two weeks after the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
A well-respected politician who earned plaudits from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Newton became the first Black Speaker Pro Tem of the Alabama House, serving from 19982010. “Representative Newton was a true gentleman and I considered him to be a great friend for the 15 years that I had the honor of knowing him,” House Speaker Mike Hubbard said, calling Newton “an intelligent, fair and kind man as well as a respected and knowledgeable legislator who fought for his district. His 27 years of service to the Alabama Legislature and his incredible impact on the civil-rights movement will forever be a powerful part of Alabama history.”
Hubbard said that even as Republicans assumed the majority in the statehouse, there was unanimous agreement that Newton, a Democrat, should retain his first-row seat in the chamber, a location typically given to House leadership.
“He was a fine gentleman, and we had a strong mutual respect for each other,” said Governor Robert Bentley, who served with Newton in the House for eight years. “He will be greatly missed, not only by his own constituents, but also by the entire state of Alabama.”
Newton’s death brought such an outpouring of support that his weekend funeral was moved to accommodate the larger crowd attending the service.