SELMA, Ala. — There’s “Selma” the movie, a powerful testament to the Civil Rights Era. And there’s Selma the city, where vacant storefronts abound on Broad Street, the main thoroughfare leading to the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“No one’s going to care about home more than we do. And I have a great sense of community that was nurtured in Selma,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell told CQ Roll Call during an extended interview in her district office recently. Sewell was born on Jan. 1, 1965, about two months before “Bloody Sunday,” “Turnaround Tuesday” and the Selma to Montgomery March, galvanizing events of the Civil Rights Era.
Virtually her entire life, the Democrat’s hometown has been a symbol of the movement, and as the representative of Alabama’s 7th District, she’s fought for Congress and the rest of the country to recognize its accomplishments.
She steered the House toward a rare bipartisan win in February, when it voted unanimously to award the Foot Soldiers of the Selma-Montgomery March the Congressional Gold Medal. Her guest at January’s State of the Union address was Amelia Boynton, the 105-year-old civil rights icon.
She marvels that she gets to call Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who helped organize and lead the march five decades ago, a colleague. “I don’t know if I could do that, to walk so humbly,” she said of the veteran lawmaker.
“Walking in the footsteps of John Lewis, [you] can’t help but be reminded of the importance of the Voting Rights Act,” she continued, vowing to do everything needed to pass a VRA update and ensure people aren’t cut off from the intent of the law passed in the summer of 1965, in the wake of the march.
But this also is a town of 19,000 people, with needs as well as history. Along with the derelict downtown, it has an 18 percent unemployment rate. And the congresswoman sees the coming 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when protesters were beaten by state authorities on the Pettus Bridge as they marched toward Montgomery, as an opportunity to educate members of Congress and other assorted guests that this is a real town, a real place, with real problems in 2015.
“I have a district that has a lot of needs. And they sent me [to Washington] not to be a part of the problem but to be part of the solution,” Sewell said, noting that hers is the poorest district in Alabama and among the poorest in the country.
“What I know for sure is that the people of the district I represent want better opportunities for themselves and their children. They’re hard workers. They lack resources. They lack opportunities,” she said, adding, “Look what’s possible with a little bit of resources and a whole bunch of opportunities from this district. Me. I live it.”
She points to her efforts to invest in workforce development and education as top priorities, noting she helped bring Mercedes-Benz and Shelton State Community College together on a joint effort to train students at the school for positions the automaker needs to fill. “I can’t change everything, but I can … work on economic development.”
In Selma, the city is working to capitalize on interest in the 50th anniversary, as well as develop a vibrant arts district along the Alabama River waterfront. Events commemorating the march, such as February’s Montgomery Bicycle Club 50-mile trek, brought hundreds of people from around the country to mark the occasion.
Along Broad Street, a sign marks the old photography studio used by supernaturalist icon Edgar Cayce in the early 20th century.
The 7th District is, of course, more than just Selma and rural Lowndes County, which made up much of the march’s route. Fifty miles east is Montgomery, a capital city with its attendant public policy workers, a host of historic sites, and a redeveloping downtown — anchored by Riverwalk Stadium, home to the Class AA Montgomery Biscuits, a minor league affiliate for the Tampa Bay Rays Major League Baseball team, hotels and new establishments such as Railyard Brewing Co.
Two hours up Interstate 65 is Birmingham, home to not just the Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church, but world-class restaurants such as the Hot and Hot Fish Club and Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill. Stitt was doing farm-to-table in the 1990s, years before such an approach was a business model and marketing tool.
And in Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama just brought home another national football championship.
But Selma exerts a real pull, and not just from public figures and those directly involved in the civil rights movement. Describing themselves as “two directionless Canadians,” Patricia Elliott, a University of Regina professor and Don Jedlic, a photographer, left Saskatchewan for their spring break to come here. “We sat down and thought about where we could go. We briefly considered Hawaii, but then decided Alabama would be more interesting,” Elliott said.
“I’ve always wanted to come to see Alabama. Drawn here for a reason,” Jedlic added. They stayed several days, at the circa-1837 St. James Hotel, to see the area and explore its place in history.
Following up a few days later, Elliott said via email, “As an addendum to our Selma experience, we have now promised half the town, on up to the mayor, that we will return, so it looks like we’ll be coming back again.”
Sewell knows such eyes all around the world will soon be upon her district. “I am hosting them,” she said. “I see it as an opportunity to not just show the needs but the beauty.”
Correction March 2, 2:44 p.m.
An earlier version of this post misstated when the University of Alabama won its most recent national football championship. It was in 2012.