MONTGOMERY, Ala. — “I come to places like Sidney Lanier so you can see, congresswomen look like me,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell tells a roundtable of student journalists here at Sidney Lanier High School.
With apologies to the late novelist Thomas Wolfe, the Alabama Democrat contradicts the title of his 1940 book, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Earlier that afternoon, Sewell addressed a larger group of Lanier students in its cavernous, pre-World War II auditorium. Invited as part of Black History Month, Sewell was eager to tell the predominantly black audience that history continues to unfold before them.
That can be easy to forget, particularly as the region gears up for the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the congresswoman’s hometown of nearby Selma, the subsequent march from Selma to the state capital and the summertime anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act.
History is everywhere here, but Sewell wants the kids to know there is still work to be done. “Perhaps the most meaningful thing I did was come home,” she tells CQ Roll Call. “I am a direct beneficiary of the movement,” that made Alabama a symbol of civil rights.
The path home was not one she had to take, given her success. The first black valedictorian at Selma High School, Sewell went to Princeton for her bachelor’s degree, Oxford for a master’s and Harvard for her law degree.
Along the way, she was friends with the future first lady, then known as Michelle Robinson, at Princeton and was a Harvard classmate of Barack Obama. She interned for Richard C. Shelby back when the Alabama Republican senator was a Democrat from the House. She moved to New York City to work on Wall Street.
Along the way, her dad would remind her, “You can always go home.” Her mother Nancy was a librarian and the first black woman elected to the city council. Her father was the basketball coach at her alma mater. They still live in Selma.
When Sewell did return, it was initially to help care for her father after a series of strokes. She stayed in Birmingham, and worked as a bond lawyer before winning the House seat Democrat Artur Davis vacated to make an unsuccessful run for governor in 2010.
Now in her third term, she recognized the past by moving legislation honoring the foot soldiers of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, even as she visited places such as Sidney Lanier to address the district’s current needs. “Education is the key to better opportunity,” she tells the auditorium of students.
Her admonition to study hard and be proud of their heritage is laced with concern that schools are re-segregating as whites migrate to suburbs and private academies, leaving blacks and other minorities in public schools. “I don’t know if my high school could produce me today,” she tells CQ Roll Call.
Sidney Lanier shows the pattern. Two of its most famous alumni are pro football players, both quarterbacks. Bart Starr, who won two Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers, graduated from a white Lanier in 1952. Tarvaris Jackson, a Seattle Seahawks player who just appeared in his second straight Super Bowl, graduated from a black Lanier in 2001.
Sewell tells the larger audience at the school to be vigilant and pave the way for younger people. “I believe being from here, we’re truly inheritors of a proud legacy,” she says, firing up the kids.
It was not always easy for her. Sewell made history by being the first black woman elected to Congress from Alabama. It’s a lonely spot. She’s the only Democrat in the delegation. She gets along well with her colleagues. But part of that, she says, is focusing on the “5 percent” she and the Republicans agree on.
Sewell has a way of keeping things in perspective. While bemoaning the not-uncommon notion that Washington is frustrating and riven with dysfunction, she says she continues to draw inspiration from an early influence, 1970s era-Rep. Shirley Chisholm, and when she’s feeling down she will visit the late New York Democrat’s portrait on the first floor of the Capitol. It is those times, she says, when she tells herself, “How dare I think what I’m doing is hard?”
While Chisholm’s legacy as the first black woman elected to Congress reminds Sewell of the importance of public service, she doesn’t see what she describes as her “season of service” lasting forever, and eschews any talk of running for higher office. “This is it for me,” she says, pointing to her House career without giving any kind of timeline for when she might leave.
Perhaps that future is what she has in mind when a student asks her advice for younger African-American women. Sewell doesn’t hesitate: “Run, baby, run,” she says, letting future generations know public service is waiting. “If you’re waiting to be asked, consider yourself asked by me.”
Related: Six Degrees of Terri Sewell The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.