BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Civil rights lawyer and Alabama State Representative Demetrius Newton, who fought alongside Martin Luther King., Jr., for equal rights during the struggle against segregation in the 1960s, died Wednesday, an Alabama House spokesman said. He was 85.
The death of Newton, whose career included a historic term as the first black president pro tem of the Alabama House, comes as Birmingham prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a church bombing there that killed four girls and galvanized the civil rights movement across the nation.
At a time when Birmingham was the epicenter of a national movement to end racial segregation laws, Newton fought for the rights of demonstrators to march in the streets without the violent backlash by authorities that characterized the civil rights protests of the 1960s.
Newton pushed for marchers' rights on behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr., and joined the legal battle to allow blacks on juries. He was also the attorney who would get Luther King out of jail.
"He was not a major lawyer for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., but he worked on individual cases, like when they would get arrested," said Rose Saunders, a Selma-based attorney and founder of the Voting Rights Museum.
"That generation of lawyers are unparalleled. They were working in the segregated South, using their legal skills to change things. They were at risk of being bombed, attacked and disbarred. He was one of the last," she added.
No information was available on the cause of death, and funeral arrangements had not been announced Wednesday afternoon, according to House spokesman Clay Redden.
"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," Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard said in a statement.
Elected to the statehouse in 1986, Newton served as president pro tem from 1998-2010. He earned his law degree from Boston University law school and was the father of two children, according to a biography on the statehouse website.
Writing by Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas; editing by Andrew Hay