ALAJ Salutes...

Demetrius Newton

 

BIRMINGHAM—House Speaker Pro Tempore Demetrius Newton has been a champion of justice since he was a young boy growing up in the harsh, cruel world of the segregated South.
 
Living in Fairfield, a small community outside Birmingham, Newton, then just 14 years old, made his first trip to the courthouse. That’s when he witnessed first hand the very different kind of justice that was given to whites and blacks. He left that day knowing he wanted to be a lawyer.
 
“When I was growing up I would stay awake at night when I was supposed to be asleep and listen to Perry Mason, I listened with great interest but that was not the turning point,” he said. “If I had to pick one thing it was a childhood experience when I went to court as a spectator and I saw the difference in the justice given to black folks versus white folks in city court.
 
“What really jumped out to me was the manner in which the court greeted the defendants –half lost the battle when they walked in the courtroom,” he added. “It was not uncommon for the judge to use the “N” word and for them to give a lecture about black folks in general. It was very common to have the fines and the sentences totally out of proportion.
 
Newton said when he left the courtroom, he knew he had a mission: To see if he could do something about those injustices. It would not be an easy path.
 
After being accepted to take the law school entrance exam, the University of Alabama refused to allow Newton to sit for the test. Because he had been approved to take the test, and the University refused to administer it, there had to be a solution. The company that administered the exam sent a proctor from New Jersey to Tuskegee University to give Newton the test.
 
Newton said they chose Tuskegee over nearby Miles College because it was the only place “white folks up north” knew about in Alabama. Newton had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to make the drive because there was no where along the way that a black person could rent a hotel room for the night.
 
“As far as I know, I am still the only person in the United States to take the law school admissions test by myself,” he said. “I had a strong father who taught me to resist a fight as long as you could but when you were pinned against the wall you had the right to fight back.”
 
And, fight back he did –with a legal degree.
 
“I knew I could not win a physical fight, I could not win a gun battle, but I believed as a lawyer I could win a fight in the court system,” he said.
 
The political bug bit him while he was living in Boston, he went on to work in a losing House of Commons race, but it didn’t matter, he had found another way to fight for Justice.
 
He returned home with legal degree in hand and began a long quest to ensure that black students were treated the same as white students in the Jefferson County school system. He filed suit when his daughter Deirdre C. Newton when he found that she and her fellow black students were not being allowed in gifted students programs; and won. Later he took issue with the board’s school zoning policies and sent her to all girls school, she later graduated from Tuffs University, the Michigan School of Law, worked in the DA’s office with John F. Kennedy Jr., and currently lives in Brooklyn and practices health law to make sure patients are protected. His son, Demetrius C. Newton Jr. teaches at Miles College and owns a small film company that recently won an award at the Atlanta Film Festival.
 
Newton himself decided to run for office in a special election in 1985. He was elected and has spent the last two-plus decades trying to bring justice to all Alabamians. He has a record of “firsts” in the House. He was the first black chairman of the Judiciary Committee and currently serves as the first black man to be second in command in the House.
 
Through it all, he has seen a lot of changes, and has changed a lot himself.
 
“I have learned the art of compromise and the importance of being civil to those you don’t agree with,” Newton said. “The art of compromise is not something you are taught but something you have to learn.
 
“If you don’t do that, you can’t be successful,” he added.
 
Newton daily witnesses the strides blacks have made in their journey toward justice in the Statehouse.
 
“I have seen a lot of change, a lot of change for the better,” he said. “When I first came here I could not imagine an African American being speaker pro temp, Senate president pro temp, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and chairman of the House General Fund Committee.”
 
At 80, Newton has one major inequity he wants to address: the 1901 Constitution.
 
“I want to leave the Legislature a little better place than I found it when I got here,” he said. “I plan to keep on going..I love the law and I love the challenges. I am passionate about seeing the Constitution rewritten before I leave.”
 
One of Newton’s daily duties as pro temp, is to go to the microphone and adjourn the House. As he gets up, and moves slowly toward the microphone, representative’s young and old, black and white, all take notice because they know he has completed one more day in his lifelong fight for justice.