Rep. Demetrius Newton dies; was first black Speaker Pro Tempore of Alabama House

Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, seen here in 2004, has died, according to the Alabama House of Representatives.  He was 85.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, seen here in 2004, has died, according to the Alabama House of Representatives. He was 85. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, a former judge who became the first black Speaker Pro Tem in the House of Representatives, has died. He was 85 years old.

Newton’s death was announced by House Public Information Officer Clay Redden.The cause of death was not immediately available.

First elected in 1986, Newton was elected Speaker Pro Tem of the House of Representatives, the No. 2 leadership position in the House, in 1998. He was the first black representative to hold the position, and held it until Republicans took over the Legislature in 2010.

House lawmakers Wednesday praised Newton as an experienced and effective legislator.

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden said Alabama “has lost a great representative and a good man,” in his Newton’s passing, while House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, called Newton “intelligent, fair and kind.”

Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Mobile, chairman of the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus, said he was “broken-hearted” to learn of Newton’s death.

“He was a statesman and an honorable man,” Bracy said. “I am privileged to have known him and to have served with him in the Legislature.”

As Speaker Pro Tem, Newton opened and closed business on most legislative days, announcing agendas and adjournments in a gravelly tenor from a podium near his seat in the front row.

Legislatively, Newton was most known for efforts to reform the Alabama Constitution through a Constitutional Convention, submitting several bills and resolutions that called for a statewide referendum on the issue. The bills were repeatedly defeated, but Newton never stopped putting the issue before the Legislature.

“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 told a House committee hearing in 2006.

Newton also sponsored a 2007 resolution that increased legislators’ compensation 62 percent. The resolution was passed through both chambers on a rushed voice vote, and became a point of criticism from Republicans. Newton defended the measure, which at the time raised pay from $30,710 to $49,500 a year, saying that lawmakers make sacrifices to serve and needed adequate compensation to continue to do so.

The pay raise was reversed by a constitutional amendment approved by voters last year. Lawmakers’ compensation is now tied to the median household income in the state.

Newton graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio, and later earned a J.D. from Boston University, and said in a 2006 interview with the Gadsden Times that he attended the BU while Martin Luther King Jr. was in the school’s divinity program. Newton later represented protestors arrested during the Birmingham protests in 1963. Newton also took on cases related to the Selma-to-Montgomery march, which paved the way for the Voting Rights Act, in 1965.

“He made a decent living, but he never made a heck of a lot of money in practicing law, because at the time most of the civil rights lawyers didn’t make money,” said Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, who served with Newton in his 27 years in the House. “They just dedicated themselves to the cause.”

Newton also worked as an attorney for the city of Birmingham, and was a judge in Brownville from 1972 to 1978.

Details on survivors were not immediately available. Newton’s legislative biography lists a daughter and a son.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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