MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Demetrius Newton, a civil rights attorney who represented icons like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. before becoming the first black person to serve as speaker pro tem of the Alabama House, has died. He was 85.
Rep. John Rogers of Birmingham, a longtime friend of Newton, says he was notified by the lawmaker's family that Newton died Wednesday morning after a long illness.
Gov. Robert Bentley served for eight years with Newton in the Alabama House.
"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," Bentley, a Republican, said.
Newton was former city attorney for Birmingham and had served in the Legislature since 1986. He was speaker pro tem from 1998 until 2010.
He was a polite man who often had a kind word for legislators and lobbyists when he passed them in the Statehouse hallways. The normally noisy House chamber would often grow quiet when Newton rose to speak.
Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard of Auburn said Newton was so well-respected that even when Republicans took over the majority, the newly elected Caucus unanimously agreed that he should retain his seat in the front row of the Chamber, a seat normally reserved for members of Leadership.
"Rep. 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," Hubbard said. He said Newton was "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."
In the Legislature, he was an outspoken critic of Alabama's 1901 Constitution, which he described as too long and out-of date.
Newton pushed for years for lawmakers to write a new constitution.
Before he was elected to the Legislature, Newton was known as the attorney for some of the people arrested during demonstrations in Birmingham. Southern Christian Leadership Conference president emeritus and CEO Charles Steele said Newton played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement.
"He was very close to the movement. What was done in Birmingham set the tone for the rest of the nation," said Steele, a former Alabama state senator.
Democratic State Rep. Alvin Holmes said the state lost "a great public servant" with the death of Newton.