From Selma to the Ivy League to Oxford to Wall Street to Congress — that is the improbable but impressive arc of Terri Sewell's life. On Tuesday, Nov. 2, she became the first black woman elected to Congress from Alabama. Bull Connor must be writhing in the afterlife, and his nemesis Martin Luther King Jr. must be smiling.
"I offer a voice for rural America," says Sewell, 45, a partner in the 200-person Birmingham law firm of Maynard, Cooper and Gale. "I have probably wanted to represent this district all my life." She grew up in Selma, the heart of Alabama's Black Belt, but spent much of her childhood summers with her grandparents in Lowndes County, known back in the day as "Bloody Lowndes" and as the place where the Black Panther Party began to take shape. She says she shucked plenty of corn and cut down lots of sugar cane during those summers.
In the Black Belt — named not so much for its demography as for the richness of the soil in what was once a cotton kingdom — she defeated a male Republican candidate with nearly three-fourths of the votes cast. Loudale Bryant, an educator who has known Sewell most of her life, said that she and other longtime supporters of Sewell's dreams thought Sewell had lost her mind when she said she was giving up her corporate life to run for office in what is pretty much the poorest part of Alabama, and one of the poorest areas in the nation.
"I said, 'You don't make any money going to Congress.' And she politely said, 'It's not about the money,' " Bryant said. "It was nagging her. She thought she could give back to her country, give back to her district, give back to her city in some way." Over lunch with Bryant and a few others, Sewell laid out her intentions. "I said, 'Go for it. Go for it.' I knew she would give it 100 percent," Bryand said. "Win, lose or draw, you would know she would have been in the race. She has always been a hard worker."
The Black Belt is poor, with official unemployment around 20 percent, and many people living as if in a Third World country, with no running water. But its people — 68 percent of whom are black — are resilient. Drawing on their own strength and their faith, they are also inspired by those who have gone on to make major contributions to the nation.
In some cases they or their progeny regularly return for visits. The wives of King, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young were all from the Black Belt. Artur Davis, the previous holder of this 7th Congressional District seat, which includes parts of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, gave it up for an unsuccessful bid to become Alabama's first black governor. Davis, like his friend Barack Obama and like Terri Sewell, is a Harvard alum. Sewell knows the Obamas and, from her days at Oxford, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.
Sewell says that the major issue for her is job creation, noting that for most of her legal career, she has focused on public finance, specifically economic development.
Among her supporters was Emily's List, the women's political-action group whose president, Stephanie Schriock, said in a press release: "Emily's List members across the country were motivated by her campaign, her enthusiasm and vision for the future of Alabama and the country. We are so proud to stand with Terri Sewell and wish her luck in Congress."
Of course, she will need it, given that the Democrats — of whom she is one — have lost control of the House of Representatives. Still, Sewell has her eye on obtaining an appointment to the House Infrastructure Committee and steering projects to her district. "We didn't prosper when times were good, so we are really suffering when times are bad."
Bryant is optimistic. "Terri is a consensus builder, and if there is any way possible, she is going to work with others. Her goal is to bring more jobs to the Black Belt. She is passionate about education — not because her parents are educators and all her aunties. It's just because we need more in education."
Sewell says: "It's going to be challenging, no doubt, but my vision remains the same. I am proud to be a Democrat, and I look forward to being a partner with President Obama."
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a Southerner based in New York.