I don’t take interviewing people of historical significance lightly. When you’ve done what I do for a while, from time to time you get to meet and interview fascinating people. It’s not every day you get to interview a President. I’ve interviewed two. It’s not every day you get to interview someone who’s walked on the moon. I’ve interviewed one. The problem is time. As time passes by we lose some great folks. Soon we won’t have World War II veterans to interview anymore. Sadly, we won’t have those who marched for civil rights in this country to interview anymore.
Demetrius C. Newton is 82-years-old, the same age as my Dad. I’ve known of him for years, but until I interviewed him I didn’t know what an important role he played in the fight for civil rights in Alabama and in this country. His story is a bit different than others. He doesn’t consider himself a foot soldier. Unlike many blacks his age Demetrius Newton was able to attend college and law school. He was then able to fight the fight for civil rights in the courtroom not in the streets.
He went to court to gain equal rights for blacks in interstate and intrastate travel. There were black and white waiting areas and black and white seating areas on busses. Newton had a legal plan. He went to court here in Birmingham with cases to require equal treatment for everyone when traveling on public transportation. He lost in city court, and then he lost in state court too. He was pretty sure he’d lose and he did. But then Demetrius Newton had a black man buy a ticket from Birmingham to Atlanta, and when he was denied equal seating and treatment Newton took the case to Federal Court and there he won.
Demetrius Newton is from Fairfield, Alabama. He’s proud that he took the case that led to the desegregation of the Fairfield City Schools. He still practices law today but he’s sort of picky on the cases he takes.
Mr. Newton told me of his college days. While at Boston University he met Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott and other blacks who attended schools in the Boston area. He told me that on Saturday nights about 38 of them would get together and have a party. He said the fun they had was memorable to say the least. He said to me, “I’ll tell you our slogan was, if you’re ever black on Saturday night, you don’t ever want to be white again.”
He laughed and so did I. I had to admit that was one I’d never heard.
I asked him if he understood that people my age and especially people younger than me may not fully understand what life was like for many black folks in the 50’s and 60’s. He told me that even his own children don’t understand. While we know there were white restrooms and black restrooms and segregated seating, it still seems like old film and old black and white photos to many of us.
Demetrius Newton says that still today he takes his two adult children out for barbeque when they come to visit. They go to a local place that’s been serving barbeque for years. Back in the 60’s it was called The Old Plantation. Newton says they’d advertise in dialect and the announcer would say, “Yas sir, dey cook it right in di pit.” Whites would sit in the dining room of the restaurant and blacks who chose to get food there would have to order and get their food at the back door of the restaurant. That’s just the way it was. It’s not anymore.
Demetrius Newton and his son and his daughter can sit anywhere they want in the restaurant. After all their money is the same color as mine.
I ended the interview by asking Mr. Newton years from now how would he like to be remembered. Here’s what he said.
“I would like for folks to remember me as someone, though sometimes failing, who tried valiantly to make life richer and better for people who were downtrodden and to create opportunities for people who thought there would never be one.”
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