Growing up in the civil rights epicenter of Selma, Alabama, Terri Sewell heard all the stories.
About the police violence during the “Bloody Sunday” march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. About the beating of the young man who became Representative John Lewis. About the bloodshed and lives lost to ensure black people would finally have the right to vote when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into effect.
As she left for the Ivy League, law school, and eventually Congress, Sewell focused on the civil rights battles ahead. Income inequality, she thought, would be her job for the new era.
Then the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. And the fight of the generation of his parents, his teachers and his neighbors suddenly became his.
“Never in a million years would I have thought that I – 57 years later – the cause for which John Lewis and those foot soldiers marched would also become my cause,” Sewell said in an interview.
“We fought that. They were bludgeoned on a bridge for the right to vote – every American’s equal right to vote,” she said. “But it is so.”
The Democratic MP for Selma Rural’s trip to the halls of Congress offers a vivid portrait of the nation’s progress toward ending voter discrimination, but also of the setbacks accrued in the long campaign for suffrage.
His work to restore the Voting Rights Act tests the resolve of a nation that celebrates its civil rights heroes of the past but cannot muster the support of Congress to update what has always been a popular and bipartisan law.
Since the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down part of the law, many states exempt from federal control have imposed new rules, changed voting times and even imposed limits on water distribution for those waiting in line. — changes that voter advocates say could do just that. harder to vote in this year’s elections.
Wade Henderson, acting president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said of Sewell, “She has emerged as a uniquely qualified person to fill the role that history seems to have given her.”
Elected in 2010 as Alabama’s first black congresswoman, Sewell arrived on Capitol Hill about as quietly as possible, among a new handful of Democrats in a wave of Republican tea. It was a rocky start for the first black valedictorian at Selma High School and someone who can boast of having attended college with both Obamas, Michelle at Princeton and the future president of Harvard Law.
Coming from a long line of “preachers and teachers”, she says she really wanted to be an actress, but remembers her late father’s warnings: “We don’t eat cornflakes for dinner for you to specialize in theater at Princeton University.
His family’s church in Selma was the historic Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point for historic suffrage marches and the place where Lewis – the future congressman, who died in 2020 – and others would return years later to commemorate “Bloody Sunday.” Her mother was the city’s first black councilwoman.
“For me, growing up in Selma, Alabama, I didn’t have to read the history books about these incredible infantrymen,” said Sewell, who is 57.
Many of them were “ordinary Alabamians,” she said, and once the marches were over and the suffrage bill became law, “They went on with their lives, and a lot of them they were my neighbors and the members of my church”.
In Congress, Sewell put his training in public finance law to work in an attempt to preserve historic civil rights sites in his district, which stretches across the state’s Black Belt to his current home in Birmingham. . A bill she signed into law awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the four black girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
The area was so underserved that when the movie “Selma” opened in 2014, her mother pointed out that there was no cinema open in town for a screening. Wastewater from residential yards remains a stubborn problem due to lagging public investment in sewerage systems.
“We can’t just come to Selma and cross that bridge and keep walking,” she said ahead of the anniversary marches next month. “This is a city dying on the vine, a city in need of economic revitalization.”
Two years after Sewell took office, the Supreme Court’s stunning decision to reject the Voting Rights Act’s “pre-clearance” formula governing state election changes has pushed the congresswoman to the fore in the sides with Lewis in an attempt to save the law, which had been considered one of the most enduring. achievements of the civil rights era.
Since the court’s decision, in each session of Congress, she has introduced legislation, now called the John R. Lewis Voting Advancement Act. It failed in the Senate in January, as part of a broader bill that was halted by a Republican filibuster and two Democrats unwilling to change the adoption rules.
For Sewell, it was a reminder of how the previous generation’s battle for civil rights quickly became his own.
“It’s an integral part of the black leadership experience,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-attorney of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“If you are a leading black person, and you care about your community and love it, the circumstances in which black people live in this country will force you, sooner or later … to become a civil rights activist.”
Alabama is once again at the center of the national debate over suffrage. Shelby County, not far from Selma, filed a lawsuit, in which Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Conservative majority, said: “Our country has changed over the past 50 years.
The Roberts court will hear another case from Alabama, expected later this year. The state, where one in four voters is black, is asking the High Court to reject the creation of a second, majority-black congressional seat, despite a lower court’s finding that having a single district with a black majority in seven “violates federal law”. ”
Sewell said the country’s history is filled with “progress and regress,” and just as it took years for a previous generation to pass the suffrage law, she is determined to continue for as long as it will be necessary to preserve it.
Doug Jones, the former Alabama senator who as a U.S. attorney prosecuted Klan members in the 16th Street Church bombing, said of the congresswoman’s work “When you grew up in Selma, in the shadow of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you know, it never left you.