Members of the esteemed Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. do not play about their mirrors. Perhaps that’s why U.S. Representative Terri A. Sewell (D-Alabama), a proud member of the historically Black organization founded in 1908, chose to affix a Post-it note to the bathroom mirror with the very last words uttered by civil rights icon John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus as part of the 55th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.”
“We cannot give up now.
We cannot give in.
We must keep the faith, keep our eyes on the prize.”
But when Sewell reads those words from March 1, 2020, it’s not because of vanity, but rather for affirmation. She said they act as something of a salve for her at a time of political upheaval in the face of violence, hope and the uncertain future of American democracy.
Lewis and countless others risked their lives in the effort to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on that day in March of 1965, and their sacrifice ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of that same year.
Though Lewis is no longer marching bridges or walking the halls of Congress, Rep. Sewell continues to look to ancestors like her fellow Alabama-born politician, who served in the House of Representatives from January 1987 until his death in July 2020.
“Those of us who have been blessed to be mentored by John feel a sense of responsibility,” Sewell, 58, told The Informer.
A Congresswoman since 2011, Sewell serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the Committee on House Administration where she is Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Elections. In her role as board chair for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), Sewell said she plans to tackle challenges and energize others as the unofficial “chief enthusiasm officer,” for the CBCF’s 52nd Annual Legislative Conference.
“My job is not only to help uplift and enrich the lives of the people that I represent but also to protect and extend the amazing legacy of civil rights and voting rights that the people of my district really brought to the forefront.”
Advancing the Voting Rights Act in 2023
A three-judge federal court earlier this month ordered that Alabama has to have its map redrawn after the map it used to elect its Congressional delegation in 2022 was found to dilute Black representation. The decision stemmed from the Allen v. Milligan case back in June, which sided with the plaintiffs in the case and upheld Section 2 of the original VRA.
An aide to Sewell told The Washington Informer that Sewell found the ruling “truly shocking.”
Earlier this week, Sewell re-introduced the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore prior preclearance in Section 5 of the original VRA, which initially required states to seek approval with the federal government before making changes to its voting laws. The landmark Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted many of the original protections against discrimination when it ordered the Republican-controlled Alabama legislature to redraw a Congressional map that Alabama used in the 2022 midterm elections.
The revitalization passed twice in the House but stalled in the upper chamber.
Voting rights is unlikely to get addressed this Congress with Republicans in the majority. However, shifts elsewhere in the country, including litigation that will determine the way future Congressional maps are drawn in states like Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana, could change the balance of power in the House of Representatives.
It means that Alabama will likely gain a second Democratic member for the first time in its history, increasing the likelihood that Democrats could regain the majority in the House of Representatives and a Black man, Hakeem Jeffries, would be House Speaker for the first time in American history.
“The Milligan decision has far-reaching implications beyond just affecting Alabama,” said Sewell, adding that the electorate in other states with pending map litigation have an even higher proportion of Black Americans than her home state. “Through enforcement of Section 2 of the VRA we can take back the House and its affirmation from the Supreme Court that Section 2 is alive and well.”
Sewell said she is “just one spoke in the wheel” in the fight for electoral justice.
A Champion for Justice Despite Life Challenges
Alabama state Sen. Merika Coleman (D), the chair of the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus, explained that the recent actions towards progress in her state are particularly gratifying because she knows Sewell has worked hard while enduring the loss of both parents in the span of four years. Her father Andrew Anthony Sewell died in 2017, and her mother Nancy Gardner Sewell in 2021.
“When you are a true public servant, you make many personal sacrifices. She sacrificed her law career, which she had built at one of the larger firms, but she also lost her mother and father while serving as a member of Congress,” said Coleman, who insiders say is a potential candidate for Congress with the likely changes ahead for Alabama.
“Not only serving, but continuing to serve with the level of intelligence and passion and vigor that she did, while also having to deal with her own personal tragedy, I think speaks to her character and who the woman is,” said Coleman. “The folks that have that level of [commitment] are born for this.”
Rev. Dr. Matthew V. Johnson, senior pastor of the Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, told The Informer that in his speech concluding the Selma to Montgomery March, Martin Luther King, Jr. cast a vision of the American Dream in spiritual terms when he said the way forward requires the redemption of the opponents in the state who, often using violence, stood opposed to voting rights progress for Black Alabamians.
“Congressperson Terri Sewell reflects both the fulfillment and the promise of Alabama for this nation and the world,” he said. “She marks the rise of the self-conscious representation of the oppressed in pursuit of justice which Dr. King called for and the promise that from the womb of the White Terror came not Jim Crow, but the power to destroy it.”