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A Path All His Own
For Eric Motley, the Measure of a Man Isn't His Politics

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.

* * *

Help Along the Way

Alabama is the home of the "Scottsboro Boys" -- the black youths wrongly convicted of raping two young white women in the 1930s. It is the Alabama of segregationist governor George Wallace and the panoramic civil rights marches over in Selma. It is the Alabama of little black boys in desperate straits.

The journey of Eric Lamar Motley began Dec. 17, 1972, at a hospital over in Tuskegee.

Barbara Motley had given birth to her first child, a boy. She did not want to keep the newborn and fled the hospital. Adoption or foster care seemed a possibility. It was a haunting tableau: Barbara herself had been adopted by Mamie and George Motley, and now had thrown her own child into that unknown world.

Mamie Motley heard of the birth, and wouldn't hear of foster care or adoption. The next evening, she rushed from her home and pleaded with a local farmer to take her to Tuskegee, 50 miles away. Her husband didn't drive at night.

So George -- bus driver, sometime carpenter -- was at home when Mamie arrived with the newborn.

"He said, 'What we gonna do with this boy?' " remembers Mamie Motley. "I said, 'We gonna raise him, that's what we gonna do.' And we never had to go on welfare."

Mamie Motley did housework for others -- black families as well as white families. Neither she nor George had much formal education.

The Motleys certainly didn't have much in common with the black intellectual high-steppers of Madison Park. There was Solomon Seay Sr., the renowned activist and ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose downtown church was on Dexter Avenue. And Solomon Jr., his son, a lawyer and a King acquaintance. There was Hagalyn Wilson, among the first black female doctors in Montgomery. And Prince Ella Madison, a stylish schoolteacher who demanded that black children not fall behind in the classroom. When Eric Motley began falling behind in first grade, Madison and others pounced. They insisted that he repeat first grade, though he didn't want to. With tutoring from various black women in the community, Motley's grades soared. George and Mamie allowed Eric to stroll through the house reciting verse. He helped his grandfather farm, but mostly he wanted to get to the library.

The Motleys attended Union Chapel AME Zion Church. The red-brick building sits in the shade of tall oak trees. "George built it essentially by himself," says John Winston, a physician and church member.

After church services, Eric would straighten chairs. He'd walk the elderly to their cars. The other kids sometimes snickered. Friends his age played hide-and-seek, ran races up and down roads. Motley thought such games a waste of his time.

"My mother got sick," remembers Winston, the physician. "I'd ride by and see Eric's bicycle on the side of her house. I'd know Eric was looking in on her."

Motley says he never felt ostracized in Madison Park about being adopted. "People in the community would say, 'George Motley's your daddy, boy.' Blood didn't matter that much. People respected who cared for you."

Barbara Motley moved to Atlanta, where she now resides. She did not wish to be interviewed for this article. Eric Motley finds it difficult to discuss his parents. "My grandparents raised me," he says, giving his stock answer. Motley has never met his father, but there are those in Madison Park who say they know who the man is, and that he continues to reside there. Motley has shown no inclination to investigate the matter.

The professional black class of Madison Park began watching the young Eric Motley. "My daddy said that boy was going to be something," Solomon Seay Jr. recalls of his father, the preacher-activist. Hagalyn Wilson, the pioneering doctor, hired Eric to tend her garden after school. It was his first paying job.

When Eric got to junior high -- bespectacled, quick to pull out a can of Lysol to chase away germs on his hands -- some of the children thought him odd. He stayed after class and tidied up for his teachers, wiping off chalkboards, clearing windowsills. Then he'd dash to his next class, beating the students there who were still lolling in the hallways.

"He was strange," concedes Susan Mayes, one of Eric's seventh-grade teachers, who came to adore him. "He was like a little old man."

In junior high, in the early 1980s, Motley began gravitating toward white kids. He found like-minded company with them. "We got him into classes for the gifted," says Mayes. "He really didn't have much to do with the black children." Motley recalls only one other black youth in the gifted program.

Motley found a hobby: public speaking. Mayes became his coach. He entered competitions. The black boy and the white teacher, driving all over Alabama. "It was a reverse 'Driving Miss Daisy,' " says Motley, recalling the movie about a white Southern woman and her devoted black chauffeur. He won and kept on winning. Mayes's family practically adopted Eric. "He was like a brother, and we rooted for him at his speech competitions," says Meredith Mann, Susan Mayes's daughter. "But he was quirky. Like that Urkel guy on TV." (Steve Urkel was the uber-nerd character on the 1990s sitcom "Family Matters.")

Motley wore high-water pants and hand-me-downs; his grandparents were often in financial difficulty. He started a little bank account with the money he made from his gardening job. Motley's black friends in Madison Park saw less and less of him.

"White people," says Marcus Wilson, a family friend, "snuck into the community and gave Eric things he had never been exposed to. You have to realize that Eric was a community project. People took him in."

As a student at Robert E. Lee High School, which was approximately 40 percent black, Motley avoided black cliques. Many of the black kids were into sports, and sports held no interest for him. He watched the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in the fall of 1991. The proceedings turned into a hurricane of sexual and racial politics. Motley, who had to write a class paper on the confirmation process, fired off a sympathetic letter to Thomas.

His thoughts about politics were beginning to crystallize. "I think it was also the first time I became truly illumined that I was expected to think a certain way, given my race. It was countering everything my grandparents taught me: Think for yourself. Use your own mind. Be your own person. All these retired black persons who had been tutoring me said: 'Stand on your own two feet!' I didn't need the Negro College Fund to tell me a mind is a terrible thing to waste."

There had always been independent thinkers in his black community. Motley's own grandfather George Washington Motley sometimes crossed party lines when voting, eschewing Democratic dogma, while keeping a picture of Thurgood Marshall in the house. During races for class office, Motley found himself siding more often than not with conservative positions, which meant siding more often than not with whites. There were stares, and questioning, from blacks.

He was becoming his own man in other ways, as well. Motown, the prideful anthems of Curtis Mayfield and the sweeping poetry of Langston Hughes did not move him. He preferred Bach, Glenn Gould and Tennyson.

Often Motley made a beeline to the downtown Montgomery Public Library after school. He was sitting there one day, an 11th-grader, and noticed a very frail man being wheeled in a wheelchair. The man was placed at a table near Eric. "Everybody in the library knew who he was," Motley says of George Wallace.

Eric said not a word to the old man.

"Here was a man at the end of his life sitting across from me. He represented the old Alabama. I represented the future."

In his senior year, Motley was accepted to Samford University, a highly regarded and conservative Baptist school in Birmingham. An aunt had wanted him to go to Alabama State, a historically black school -- "so you won't forget where you come from," she told Motley.

The elder Motleys, however, gave Eric their blessing.

He had made the transition to independent thinker.

* * *

A Lonely Position

In American politics and letters, the black conservative has long been a controversial figure.

At the turn of the 20th century, Booker T. Washington was the most influential black man in the nation. An ex-slave who founded Alabama's Tuskegee Institute and pushed the idea of self-reliance, Washington took on the role of racial conciliator. "In all things that are purely social, " he said in a famous 1895 speech, "we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Washington became a major distributor of GOP patronage in the South and dined at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt. But in time, his popularity slid as a chorus of critics questioned his accommodation of inequality and his emphasis of economic improvement over political power. W.E.B. Du Bois, the scholar, pointed many an angry word at Washington, believing his philosophy angled toward keeping blacks in rural jobs and their aim low.

Even the most cherished entertainers have discovered that being on the other side of the political divide can get you branded a race traitor. Lionel Hampton, Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown, among others, all heard catcalls because of their support for conservative Republican administrations. Davis's 1972 endorsement of President Richard M. Nixon, whom many blacks considered anathema, triggered threats on the entertainer's life. In the generations since Booker T. Washington's prominence, many black Republicans have encountered similar distrust. In 1955, when E. Frederick Morrow became the first black man in history to work in an administrative position at the White House, he was viewed as an oddity. A Bowdoin College graduate, Morrow was appointed administrative officer for special projects in the Eisenhower White House. (Mostly, he gave advice on civil rights matters, including the Montgomery bus boycott.) Morrow's historic position didn't stop acquaintances from snickering behind his back. After his White House years had ended, he confessed how lonely it had all been.

* * *

Soul Food?

When Eric Motley arrived on Samford's campus, he became friendly with a group of young white Republicans. He also requested a single room. He knew he would be rising every morning at 4:30 -- to write letters, read and call his grandparents.

Around campus, a portrait emerged: That's Eric Motley -- straightening up classrooms, jawboning with professors and janitors. "Everybody kept telling me I had to meet this Eric Motley kid," says Thomas Corts, Samford's outgoing president. "They would never say he was the most brilliant kid, or the best-looking kid, anything like that. They would just say he was the finest kid you'll ever meet."

Patrick Millsaps kept hearing the name also: Eric Motley, Eric Motley.

"I was a sophomore when he was a freshman," says Millsaps, now a lawyer in Georgia. "It was known around campus I was interested in politics. Somebody said, 'Patrick, you have to meet this guy.' They said, 'By the way, he's a Republican. And he's black.' I said, 'Hmm, a black Republican. From the South.' "

Motley headed up the Samford Speakers Series on campus, beginning in 1994. He brought an eclectic group to campus: poet Gwendolyn Brooks, former State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler, Justice Clarence Thomas. To many at Samford, Motley seemed to transcend race. His cultural tastes, in particular, did not conform to the expectations some had of a black student.

"I just think he's risen way above rap music and never agreed with those contentious and rebellious lines of rap music," says Corts, who brought up rap music without any prompting. Motley kept in touch with all the important people he had come in contact with. "Eric is a master networker," says Bertha Winston, a family friend.

He wrote Gwendolyn Brooks three times before she agreed to visit Samford.

Brooks was a celebrated poet. However, she had a fear of flying and arrived by train. "I'll never forget standing on the platform in Birmingham," Motley says. "She was wearing a tam. She had two bags. All these people are rushing by her. She saw me, clasped her hands over her head and said, 'You must be Eric Motley!' "

Motley escorted her to her readings, her signings, her dinners. They talked poetry. She kept staring at his tie, at the knot. "She said to me, 'My mama always told me there should never be any white between a black man's neck and his tie. Tie your tie, tight.' "

One evening, Gwendolyn Brooks wanted some fried chicken, some soul food. Motley didn't know of any soul food restaurants, and didn't know any black Birmingham families well enough to get an invitation to Sunday dinner. So he decided to take Brooks to Church's Fried Chicken. "Me and her were standing there, ordering chicken and collard greens," says Motley.

He kept looking around. He was afraid -- "that somebody might see I had taken Gwendolyn Brooks to Church's."

Brooks told Motley she'd write him a poem, he says. He kept checking his campus mailbox for it. It never arrived.

Motley graduated from Samford in 1996. He was encouraged by professors to look at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for graduate study. Pete Hanna, a wealthy white businessman in Birmingham, pressed some money into Motley's palms. So did the black lawyer Solomon Seay Jr.

And Eric Motley flew across the ocean. "They took Eric from us," Hagalyn Wilson says. "The white people. I don't know. Maybe we had given Eric everything we had."

There's not a trace of anger in her voice.

Motley fell in love with Scotland. He hiked through the countryside, reciting poetry. He became very close to Struther Arnott, the president of St. Andrews, and his wife, Greta. When Motley finished his master's degree studies, Struther Arnott persuaded him to stay on and get a doctorate in international relations.

Speaking by phone from Scotland, Greta Arnott says she was impressed with Eric. "I don't think, with him, his peers had to get over any racial hang-ups."

With his doctorate in hand, Motley shrewdly drew on one of his contacts and found himself sitting, at age 27, for a White House interview.

* * *

Speaking Up for Bush

Margaret Tutwiler, who had met Motley at Samford, brought his name to the attention of Clay Johnson during the transition period after George W. Bush was elected president in 2000. Johnson, a longtime Bush acquaintance, followed the Texas governor to Washington and was put in charge of presidential personnel in the first term. Motley's first White House job was as one of Johnson's handful of deputies. Johnson quickly became a mentor to Motley, taking him into the Oval Office. "Less than two months after arriving," says Motley, "I was meeting with the president."

"The president admires Eric very much," says Johnson, who is now deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget.

Motley's superiors were so impressed with him that he was promoted in 2003. He was given the responsibility of recommending to the president several thousand appointments to advisory boards and commissions. Among them: the Kennedy Center board of trustees, the National Cancer Board, the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board and the International Whaling Commission. (Motley once phoned Marcus Wilson, the Montgomery physician who hails from Madison Park, and asked him if he would consider an appointment overseeing the global AIDS initiative based in the State Department. Wilson was intrigued, but the talks collapsed as Motley demanded to know his views on abortion, which Wilson felt didn't have anything to do with his passion for AIDS work. Motley says he is not permitted to discuss personnel discussions that took place when he worked at the White House.)

"When you first meet Eric, his skin color, it's black," says Clay Johnson, sitting in his plush office next door to the White House. "He does not dress black, and his accent is not black. He's black, but he's been raised by blacks and whites. I think by the way he looks at the world, he feels colorless."

Motley dropped his Southern accent. It was one of the things that many of Motley's friends -- even Johnson -- ribbed him about.

The Bush administration has not been shy about utilizing Motley as a public speaker.

"I view myself as a moderate-conservative," Motley says. "I am a conservative by nature. But I am not an extremist."

His stump speech is titled "An Odyssey of Gratitude and Grace." In it Motley talks about his upbringing, his admiration of President Bush, his own White House career: "I am a victim -- a victim of random acts of kindness, from birth to the White House. Without vanity, but with a deep sense that I am a beneficiary, you can trace the grace that runs so true through all my life thus far. My story is that grace, not race, is the dominant factor in life."

The speech serves as a counter to Bush's naysayers.

"After I began giving that speech," says Motley, "I got all kinds of invitations. From university presidents, business organizations. Actually, that speech became a kind of hot potato."

Motley, who recognizes Bush is not popular among blacks, sees himself as evidence of Bush's inclusion of minorities. "If blacks are afraid of the administration, doesn't it make sense to have me on the inside?"

Earlier this year, Motley became director of the State Department's Office of International Visitors. The office works with embassies abroad in identifying emerging leaders, who often travel to America and are hosted by Motley's office. Among recent invitees were a group of HIV-infected mothers from South Africa who came to learn about AIDS prevention in America.

Motley's office, on Fourth Street SW, is in an annex away from the main State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom. Several pictures adorn walls and shelves. One photo Motley considers a prized possession. It is of him and the men whom he considers mentors: Motley with President Bush, Clay Johnson, Pete Hanna, Struther Arnott and Thomas Corts. There are no pictures of Motley's Madison Park mentors.

One evening this year, Motley was hosting a group of foreign visitors in State's ornate Benjamin Franklin Room. There were shrimp and lamb satay served from silver trays. The group was mostly volunteers who work with Motley's visitor leadership program. A gregarious sort, Motley floated in and around knots of people. Often he would be pulled up close to someone and a camera would flash. He seemed at ease, his navy suit buttoned, his laughter loud enough to be heard, the chandeliered light twinkling off his eyeglasses.

On the podium, Motley welcomed everyone, sending out greetings from the White House and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He spoke reverently of the historic furnishings. Then he sought to share a little about his own life: "When I first went to work at the White House, my grandmama said, 'What you gonna be doing over there?' "

He paused, like a comic.

" 'Serving coffee? Or cleaning?' "

The humor, couched in a kind of backstairs at the White House nostalgia and delivered to a mostly white and foreign crowd, fell flat. The chuckling was painfully awkward.

* * *

A Solitary Life

The furniture in Motley's well-appointed Georgetown condominium is mostly French and English antiques. Motley's friends sometimes joke that his home is a museum. His walls are lined with leather-bound books: obscure British poets, essayists. Friends worry that he is a lonely man. Motley spends most of his free time reading.

He also raises orchids, a tribute to Hagalyn Wilson.

He collects obituaries, clipping them from newspapers. It is as though the dazzling arc of his own life has so surprised him that he wishes to untangle the arcs of other successful lives. "I have a television, but it stays in the closet," Motley says.

His style of dress swerves from preppy to English dandy.

When Motley is not at work, he visits antique stores, art galleries. He is single. "I don't think he'll ever get married," says grandmother Mamie Motley, who believes he is too finicky for most women.

Motley confesses he has had a difficult dating life. A long-term relationship with a woman ended not long ago, and it seemed to derail him. He even discussed it with Clay Johnson.

"It was his first heartbreak," says Johnson.

Motley won't discuss it.

"He asked me what to do," Johnson continues. "I said 'Eric, I don't know what to tell you. I've been married to the same woman for many years.' "

Motley has not tapped into the vein of black cultural life in Washington. Sometimes he will hop on his bicycle to look at the architecture of black churches over in Southeast. The curiosity of his eyes satisfied, he pedals on. One can sit in Motley's apartment for hours, and the phone won't ring, not once. "I grew up by myself," Motley says. "Of course there were kids around. But my interests, for the most part, were always different from theirs. I had this wonderful capacity as a child to keep myself engaged."

* * *

Homecoming

To travel to Montgomery, Ala., with Eric Motley is to watch him through the looking glasses of others.

Here sits Mamie Motley on her front porch. She is beyond proud of the child she still calls "Bug."

"He don't like me to call him Bug no more," she says, grinning.

Mamie Motley lives alone. She lives for the thrice-weekly phone calls she gets from Eric. "He come home and he goes around picking up all the trash on the roadside," she says. (Mamie Motley will not, however, discuss politics with her grandson.)

Here sits Prince Ella Madison, another of the important Madison Park ladies in Eric's young life. She is bent in her chair by a window that floods her with fine slices of Alabama light. She is 94.

"Eric, have an ice cream sandwich," she demands as he enters her home.

She is proud just to see his brown face. Her voice is high and thin. "Eric, remember when I used to drive you around with me, telling you to read the signs?" Motley remembers.

"He'd sometimes say, 'You going too fast!' I did drive fast," Madison says.

They cackle together.

"You know they burned another church in Alabama," she goes on, referring to a wave of church arsons in the state. "Over in Talladega. And I don't think they had that church insured, either."

Motley registers no reaction.

"Write me!" she says to Motley, as she stands leaning on her walker at the back screen door.

Here stands Solomon Seay Jr., the fabled lawyer. Like his father, he, too, knew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. They all used to pass the steamed okra back and forth across the table .

"Lot of kids around here was jealous of Eric," Seay says, standing next to Eric in his living room. "Little petty jealousies."

Seay has been ailing: a stroke. But he still does some lawyering.

Seay's tone changes as he relates to Motley his feelings that he plans on keeping up pressure on the Bush Justice Department over racial makeups in Alabama schools and busing matters. "Well, I don't work for Justice," Motley says, laughing the words out, against Seay's solemn face, against Seay shaking his head.

"You know Bob Carter, the judge?" Seay asks Motley. "Well, he once wrote an article about a black judge, about a man in a black robe who thinks white."

Momentary silence.

"My name certainly wasn't in that article!" Motley blurts out, before letting loose some nervous laughter.

Seay doesn't crack a smile.

And not far down the road, here stands, in his junk-strewn yard, Nathaniel Johnson, a farmer of very modest means. He, like the others, is happy to see Eric home for a visit. The farmer is in a T-shirt and coveralls. He is holding a pipe; whiffs of tobacco scent the air. There are other things Johnson wishes to say to Eric Motley.

"Boy, what in the world you doing up there in Washington? Y'all done messed up the whole country. What in the world is Bush doing? Things just a mess. I mean, a mess. I don't like that business over in Iraq one bit."

"Well, Mr. Johnson . . ."

Eric fidgets. Grins. The grin vanishes.

"No, I'm serious!" Johnson goes on. "I mean things is messed up!"

Motley asks Johnson if he really means what he is saying.

" 'Course I do!"

Nathaniel Johnson is asked how he came to meet Eric Motley.

"I'm the one who went with Mrs. Mamie down to Tuskegee to get the boy the day after he was born. I'm the one brought the boy home!"

Nathaniel Johnson's roosters, just a few feet away, are crowing. He is pointing at a rusting car, which he still rumbles around in. It's the one he drove to Tuskegee when he picked up the newborn Eric Motley in 1972.

* * *

The Road Ahead

The service inside Eric Motley's home church is winding down. The minister has singled out Motley, talked about how he had been praying for him and President Bush.

In the basement, the church ladies have set out dinner -- fried chicken, collard greens, steamed okra, candied yams, sweet tea. Already, Motley is up, helping to clean off tables, move chairs about.

Motley has said to White House officials -- as well as power brokers in Alabama -- that he may return to Alabama after his tenure in the Bush administration. "These people have said to me whatever it is I want to do, they're willing to help me," Motley says. "I'm trying to decide what I want to do."

He may run for office at some point. He wants to keep outrunning labels. "There are still some people in this community who are not overly anxious to embrace Eric," says Solomon Seay, "even though he has gotten to where he's at in life."

Seay admits he sometimes thinks about Motley in relation to his own father. Solomon Seay Sr. would be on the back porch reading books with Motley. Sometimes other kids would throw walnuts at the old man and young Motley, and run off. Seay Jr. wonders if that experience, in some way, scarred Eric Motley, turning him away from black folk in his professional life, setting him inside a zone of what Seay refers to as "cultural naivete."

Jim Wilson, the lawyer and member of Motley's church, has watched Motley's career from afar. And Wilson also has concerns about Motley. "My worry," he says, "is that when all of this is over -- the Bush administration, Eric's job, because it will all come to an end -- my worry is: Will Eric be able to find his way back home?"

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