This year marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and thus has been a year marked with remembrance of the civil rights movement and assessment of where we stand today. While the United States has made progress toward achieving equal rights for all, there is still much work to be done. Unfortunately, one of the last living lawyers from the Civil Rights movement has passed away this morning. Demetrius Newton, aged 85, served as a lawyer in Alabama during the 1950-60’s, focusing mainly on issues of segregation, and also spent 27 years representing western Birmingham in the Alabama State of Representatives.
While Newton was not intimately involved in the causes of civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., he did help get these prominent leaders out of jail on multiple occasions. Newton cited his most memorable case as one in which he helped to eliminate segregation in the areas of inter- and intrastate travels. Obviously, being a black lawyer in a segregated south was no easy task. However, Newton seemed to have a more positive view of his experience than most: “I must confess that even in that rigid segregated era, there were judges who would follow the rules and would basically give you a fair trial. Others would not.”
In ways, it seemed as if it was harder for Newton to gain access to law school than to practice law itself. The common practice for graduate programs in Alabama during the 1950-60’s was to pay for black students to attend graduate schools out of state rather than create integrated graduate schools within their own state. Newton, for instance, was paid to take his studies to Boston University. Upon graduating, Newton had no intention to return to the south to practice law; he had had enough of the segregation. However, his mind was changed for him by his friend’s wife: “She said D, I don’t care where you go – as long as you’re black you’ll always be discriminated against so you might as well come home.”
House Representatives in Alabama had nothing but positive remarks for Newton’s stint in the state legislature. Republican Governor of Alabama, Robert Brentley, described Newton as 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.” With such a strong history of being tied to segregation and discrimination in the South, it is surprising to hear such glowing praise come from a member of the Republican party. Newton was such an uplifting and positive representative, though, that he was able to exert influence and command respect across party lines. Newton, a lifelong Democrat, was so well-respected that he was allowed to retain a front-row seat in the House chambers when the Republicans assumed a majority, a privilege that is usually reserved for members of the majority party.
Legislatively, Newton was best known for his fight to ratify the Alabama state constitution, which he believed was extremely outdated and irrelevant to the current era. One would have to believe that Newton would hold a similar belief about the ideas of race and class many people still profess today. When one reflects on the progress the United States has made toward racial equality over the past 50 years, its easy to make the claim that we are “color-blind”. But if one really examines the number of majorities who comprise leadership roles in our country, the number of minorities who exist in the middle-class or above, the number of minorities currently incarcerated, and the number of minority students below education proficiency, it is evident that we have not made enough progress. Hopefully many in Alabama and the US in general will use Newton’s life as inspiration and continue his fight toward equality.
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