Dr. Eric Motley has worked in the White House, tutored royalty and earned a doctorate from a world-class university — but he hasn’t forgotten the community that taught him how to read.
In fact, he wrote a book about it, “Madison Park, A Place of Hope,” which tells the story of an enclave by the same name, founded in 1880 by a group of freed slaves. Motley wove together stories from his upbringing and adult years during his remarks Monday for the Madeline McElveen Distinguished Preacher Series.
Motley, an executive vice president of the Aspen Institute, was the second of three preachers in the series made possible by McElveen’s children — 2018 Women of Distinction honoree Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, Tweed McElveen Bogache and Dr. John McElveen. The Center for Biblical Leadership is a sponsor of the Madeline McElveen Distinguished Preacher Series.
Y. Michele Kang, 2019 American Free Enterprise Day medalist, attended Motley’s talk, along with McElveen’s daughters and grandson.
Motley called on students to act as the hands and feet of Jesus with a mandate from scripture: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”
Motley came from a community that had little but gave much. He was born to a teenage mother and raised by his grandparents, who had previously adopted his mother. His grandfather had three great desires for him — that he would realize he was created by God, part of a community and in need of enlightenment that only education can provide.
He was a curious little boy who asked a lot of questions and excelled at reading. When his reading skills suddenly slipped, his grandmother contacted a retired teacher to tutor him. Aunt Shine, as she was lovingly called, assured her, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Motley. We believe in resurrection.”
In church that Sunday, she shared his dilemma with the whole congregation and called on them to donate reading material for a home library for little Eric. The community turned out in droves, Motley recalled.
With the help of Aunt Shine, Motley succeeded in school. He entered every debate competition because he knew they paid cash prizes that could help him afford college. From ages 8 to 18, he stashed away $25,000 he made mowing lawns, picking strawberries and doing whatever else he could to earn tuition money.
But it wasn’t enough.
Through good fortune and the intervention of yet another Madison Park ally, Motley landed a scholarship to Samford University under President Dr. Tom Corts. Corts is the brother of former Palm Beach Atlantic President Dr. Paul R. Corts.
All of Madison Park turned out to send Motley off to college in Birmingham with the singing of “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds” and a container of collard greens. That’s when it dawned on him — he was going to the university for every child in the neighborhood who never got the chance.
A member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, Motley was the first person to integrate the Greek system at Samford. Before the vote, some of the fraternity members’ parents lobbied against Motley’s initiation because of his race, he said.
Another group of students challenged their fraternity brothers and left an out-of-town basketball tournament to make it back to Samford in time for the vote. One was David Mahanes, son of Dr. Ken Mahanes, former dean of PBA’s School of Ministry, vice president for religious life and special adviser to the president.
“He knew based on his own upbringing what was right,” Motley said.
Motley earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Samford and continued his education as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He earned a Master of Letters in International Relations and a doctorate as the John Steven Watson Scholar.
Motley has worked as director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Visitors, special assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy associate director of the Office of Presidential Personnel.
He was working in the White House when he was summoned back to Madison Park to visit Aunt Shine in her final days. She kept him humble.
“‘If you think that I’m proud of you because you have a Ph.D., I’m not,’” she told him. “‘If you think I’m proud of you because you’re working at the White House, I’m not.’”
Aunt Shine reminded him that his success was not in his credentials but in what he does for others.
Her last words to him: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
Photo 1: Dr. Eric Motley delivers his remarks Monday, Feb. 12, 2020. He is the second of three orators to speak in chapel for the Madeline McElveen Distinguished Preacher Series.
Photo 2: Dr. Eric Motley speaks about his upbringing in Madison Park, an enclave in Alabama founded by freed slaves, during his remarks in the Madeline McElveen Distinguished Preacher Series.