A Path All His Own

Wil Haygood
The Washington Post
Sunday, June 11, 2006

MONTGOMERY, Ala.

There is a little enclave on the rural edge of this history-drenched city. It is called Madison Park. You can hear the roosters. And gawk at Dr. Hagalyn Wilson's roses, tulips and calla lilies, in bloom all over her yard.

The outside world might not know much about it, but Madison Park has produced a scintillating array of black achievers: lawyers, doctors, educators, ministers -- and at least one Republican on the rise, Eric L. Motley.

At 33, Motley occupies a huge State Department office in Washington. He is an obscure but influential Bush administration official who heads an international visitors program. He supervises a staff of more than 100 and oversees a budget that exceeds $80 million. How Motley arrived at this station from Madison Park is the tale of one man's journey through the labyrinth of racial expectations.

For years, a battle brewed for Motley's political soul. Here, in the cradle of the civil rights movement, the black community in which he grew up was populated overwhelmingly by Democrats, men and women who reached out to nurture and inspire him. They put Motley on the ladder of success. But in time, as his experiences broadened, whites -- mostly Republicans -- embraced his promise and pulled Motley up that ladder.

There is little doubt now about which political faction won Motley's allegiance.

At White House black-tie affairs, Laura Bush is quick to single him out: "Hey, Eric!" He is comfortable in the Republican Party. He is not so comfortable with how he is sometimes seen, as if a black man doesn't exist underneath his skin. Eric Motley: the unblack black man. To some, that is a wonderful, modern image. But among others, especially blacks, Motley senses an estrangement that is wearying.

"I'm tired of that word 'sellout,' " he says.

Motley believes he represents a new paradigm for the way people should look at a black man in America: the black man whose authenticity is not judged by his ideology, his dating habits, his leisure activities or the company he keeps, and certainly not by his political affiliation.

Rain is falling in Madison Park, in a patch of open woods, just over the railroad tracks. Eric Motley has returned home, as he does several times a year. He is standing in the local all-black cemetery, sweeping leaves from flat headstones. Uncle Arthur. George Washington Motley, the grandfather. His great-uncle China Motley. He is wearing a pressed monogrammed shirt. He has a beatific smile. "We do all the upkeep ourselves," he says of the living who bury the dead here -- and who lifted Motley up, and who sometimes still worry about his soul.

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