SELMA, Ala. — It’s a Sunday afternoon in the midst of a season of remembering here. Rep. Terri A. Sewell is back in her home church, her home district. One by one, senior citizens step forward, and she places medal after medal around their aged necks. Fifty years ago, they marched from this little church to the state capitol in Montgomery, a tense, dangerous journey in the face of segregationist opposition to their right to vote.
These men and women changed history. But they’re also part of her history.
The Rev. F.D. Reese, who invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma in 1965, steps up. “My high school principal!” Sewell calls out.
Then comes Elmyra Martin Smith, moving gingerly now — Sewell’s old high school guidance counselor. She marched, too.
Next is Sewell’s childhood babysitter.
Her Uncle Boo Boo’s name is called — by Sewell’s mother, Nancy, who is running the program — even though he couldn’t make it today.
Then comes one of her teachers.
The congresswoman, a Democrat, smiles broadly. “I’m home,” she says.
Sewell, 50, born just two months before those marches, was raised here, in the first generation of African Americans to benefit from the hard-fought victories of the civil rights movement. The first black valedictorian of Selma High School, she graduated from Princeton, then Oxford, then Harvard Law, and then to a job on Wall Street — before circling back home to become the first black woman to represent Alabama in Congress.
In coming days, as nearly 100 of her Capitol Hill colleagues join President Obama and a throng of dignitaries in Selma to mark the anniversary of the marches, Sewell’s accomplishments will be held up as proof of progress and the fulfilled promise of the civil rights movement.
Yet she sees the slippage. Her old high school has been resegregated for more than two decades; virtually all the white kids in town go to private school. The debate team she so loved is gone. More than one-third of the town’s population — and 60 percent of the children — live in poverty. These are the things that are on the congresswoman’s mind as she speaks to the familiar faces gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E.
“We have to move beyond the Bridge,” she tells them, and a man in the choir loft leaps up.
“Yeah!” he shouts.
“We need to live Selma and know that the assaults of the past are here again,” Sewell continues. “Old battles are here again.”
In the Alabama Terri Sewell was born into, her elders experienced both deep wounds and first-time opportunities. Battles were won, but memories remained raw. Her father, Andrew, a high school basketball coach, grew up refusing to drink from public water fountains. “I’m not thirsty,” he would say, rather than take a sip from the one labeled “colored.” He never forgot that indignity.
Her mother, a high school librarian with a master’s degree, became the first African American woman elected to Selma’s City Council in 1993 and served 11 years. She had Terri reading to other children during story hour at the local library from the age of 7.
“She has always been an overachiever,” says Nancy Sewell, whom her daughter sometimes calls “the real congresswoman from Alabama’s 7th District.”
By the 1980s, Selma was “an optimistic” place for Sewell and her twin brothers to grow up, she recalls. She knew her home town’s history, of course, but it did not overwhelm her childhood. “You have to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge” — where lawmen attacked peaceful marchers on “Bloody Sunday” half a century ago — “to get to my mom and dad’s house,” Sewell says.
Selma had 28,000 residents when she was growing up. It was “fully integrated,” and she felt blessed to grow up there, says Sewell. Even the city’s white mayor during those years, who had supported segregation in the ’60s, had begun to boast of his support from black voters.
Sewell excelled there, propelled by the fierce dedication of her parents and soaring ambitions of her mother. She loved drama and wanted to be a Broadway star. Her mother nudged her to become a lawyer. In high school, she won so many debate tournaments that it was written up in the Montgomery newspaper. A Princeton alum saw it and contacted Sewell’s high school, urging her to apply. She earned a 3.8 grade point average in college and interned three summers for Sen. Richard Shelby, then the Democratic congressman from Alabama’s 7th District.
Last year the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call outlined the “Six Degrees of Terri Sewell,” detailing the high-powered connections forged during her young adult climb. Michelle Robinson, the future first lady, was Sewell’s campus “big sister” at Princeton. At Oxford, which she attended on a Marshall Scholarship, she got to know Susan Rice, the future U.N. ambassador and national security adviser. She attended Harvard Law with Barack Obama. While practicing corporate securities law for Davis Polk & Wardell in New York, she befriended co-worker and future Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
She stepped off the fast track briefly when her father had a stroke, and in late 2004, she returned to Alabama and a corporate law job in Birmingham.
But in 2007, she was sitting in her regular pew at Brown Chapel when Obama — then a senator and candidate for president — came to speak. She heard him talk about the Moses generation — the elders who had marched for civil rights — and referred to himself as part of the Joshua generation, the beneficiary of those victories.
“The questions that I have today is, what’s called of us in this Joshua generation? What do we do in order to fulfill that legacy, to fulfill the obligations and the debt that we owe to those who allowed us to be here today?” Obama asked.
Sewell felt like he was speaking directly to her. The message: You’ve got your corner office, but what about service?
Soon, Gillibrand was ringing Sewell’s corner office in Birmingham. Newly elected to Congress, Gillibrand was trying to recruit more women to run; she wanted Sewell to go after the seat about to be vacated by Artur Davis, who was running for governor. After some talks with Gillibrand, Sewell was convinced that she could run and win — even though it was her first political campaign.
She called on her Ivy League network to help raise money, won the crowded 2010 Democratic primary in a runoff, then trounced her general-election opponent. She was easily reelected to two more terms.
In Brown Chapel’s multipurpose room,Sewell lets the church ladies pile her foam plate with turkey, dressing, macaroni and sweet potatoes. “These are my mama’s sweet potatoes,” she calls out after digging a fork in. “I would know them anywhere!”
“Hey sis,” says another church lady, waving at Sewell. “You know your mom has us busy.”
No one here in Selma is surprised that little Terrycina Sewell, looking sharp in a designer suit and heels, became the first black woman to represent Alabama in Congress.
“She was into everything,” says Aubrey Larkin, a church member.
But, as Sewell’s education and career soared, her home town faltered badly.
Selma’s population dropped below 20,000. The George Washington Carver Homes, a large public housing project across the street from Brown Chapel constructed after World War II to house poor blacks, fell into disrepair. Bricks are crumbling in some corners. The riverfront business district that runs adjacent to the storied Pettus Bridge became home to boarded-up businesses and a feed store.
The unemployment rate in her district is 10 percent. The median income is less than $27,000, and the high school dropout rate is the highest in the state.
Following an ugly dispute over the selection of a superintendent of schools in 1990, “literally every white parent” in town pulled all of their children out of the town’s public high school, Sewell says, and they have never fully returned. The debate team was folded long ago. In 2002, the Birmingham News ran a report calling the Black Belt region, where Selma is located, “Alabama’s Third World.”
“It saddens me to go back to my old high school,” Sewell says. “It has a beautiful, new facade, but the heart and soul of that school is gone. The things that made a difference in my life are no longer there.”
She sees her job as restoring some of those resources. On a tour of her Birmingham district office, there are thousands of brochures touting the new copper tubing facility going up in nearby Thomasville, which created 200 jobs.
“Thank you, Jesus, we got the training facility!” she says, gushing over a new program to prepare locals for the jobs in the copper plant.
Leaning back in a chair beside her desk, she is energized as she talks about the small changes she can achieve. She jokes about the difficulty getting anything done amid the partisanship. “All I know is the minority,” she says. “Can I get some majority?”
The members of Congress making the pilgrimage to Selma this weekend — 23 Republicans, 71 Democrats and one independent — will see the sweep of her district, and she hopes they see the real Selma and want to support it. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “You have to go there to know there.”
“People are changed by their own experiences,” Sewell says. “You can’t preach to them.”
When her colleagues visit the Edmund Pettus Bridge, she doesn’t plan on sermonizing. They will see the shuttered shops, the still mostly empty building set aside for an institute to tell Selma’s story. Congress could vote this year to fund the site, which President Obama put in his budget for the first time.
During their visit to Brown Chapel, the elected officials can look over at the George Washington Carver Homes and see families on welfare. They will have faces to put to the statistics Sewell quotes on the floor of the House of Representatives when she is defending funding for food programs.
“I hope they see the beauty of the people,” says Sewell.
And she hopes their interactions with the foot soldiers of the voting rights movement will prompt them to support legislation to reinstate parts of the Voting Rights Act, which has been pared back by courts that find some of its provisions unnecessary in modern America.
After her Sunday afternoon visit to Brown Chapel, Sewell and her police escort head 30 miles north to Marion, Ala. to another ceremony, at a smaller church, in the more rural reaches of the state.
The impetus for Selma’s Bloody Sunday protest began here. Members of Zion United Methodist Church held a night march on Feb. 18, 1965, protesting the arrest of James Orange, a leader of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Lawmen broke up the protest and followed several marchers into Mack’s Cafe, where Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young deacon, tried to protect his mother from being beaten by a state trooper. A lawman shot him in the stomach.
As Sewell stands on the stage of Zion United Methodist, she looks out and sees raw emotions. Jackson’s death became a part of civil rights history — but it remains a searing family tragedy. A gray-haired woman who had marched in ’65 slumps over, heaving in tears.
“Please know he didn’t die in vain,” Sewell tells Jackson’s sister and niece, her voice cracking for a moment. “I walk the halls of Congress because of his death.”
She was supposed to leave after the medals ceremony, but she decides to stay. The congregation gathers outside in the cold to finish the march that was interrupted 50 years ago. Facing the night air, Sewell holds a lit candle in her hand and takes her place at the front of the march. The torch, she knows, is in her hands.