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. No cause of death was 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.
“Demetrius was a true statesman and a good friend,” House Minority leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said in a statement. ”He made history as the first African American to serve as Speaker Pro Tem of the House, and his experience and advice were invaluable to me. I am deeply saddened by his loss. The state has lost a great representative and a good man.”
House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, called Newton “a true gentleman” in a statement.
“Mr. Newton was an intelligent, fair, and kind man as well as a respected and knowledgeable legislator who fought for his district,” the statement said. “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.”
Newton led efforts to reform the Alabama Constitution through a Constitutional Convention, submitting several bills and resolutions that called for a statewide referendum on whether to call a constitutional convention. 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 Univerity 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 during the Selma-to-Montgomery march, which paved the way for the Voting Rights Act, in 1965.
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, but Newton’s legislative biography lists a daughter and a son.