Early one Saturday in December 2009, with temperatures hovering in the mid-30s, Terri Sewell ’86 perches atop an open Mustang convertible in Selma, Ala., near the head of the city’s Christmas parade. Down the length of Washington Street, where a voting-rights mural graces the side of a building and a squat brick structure houses Selma Bail Bonds, a flotilla has assembled — fire trucks and church groups, a beauty queen and a Girl Scout troop. Teenage boys and girls, pressed into ROTC uniforms, file down the sidewalk. A majorette in white knee-high boots sashays.
A dozen preteen recruits trail along Sewell’s car, five spots back, chant-ing: “Go Ter-ri,” “Go Ter-ri.” As her driver inches toward Broad Street, Selma’s main commercial thoroughfare, the Edmund Pettus Bridge springs into view. In the front seat, a woman clutching a bullhorn calls out, “Terri Sewell for Congress.” African-American spectators line the sidewalk, three and four deep. Sewell, clad in a black quilted jacket and a leopard-trimmed Santa hat, waves to the crowd.
“I will always see myself as the 17-year-old child who grew up in Selma,” she says the next day, at a Birmingham Starbucks. “I think Selma is iconic for the world as the birthplace of voting rights. But Selma is just my home. It’s where my mom and dad are. It’s where my favorite teachers are. It’s home.”
And when the votes are counted 11 months later, she sounds the same theme: “I started here in Selma, and there was never a time when I didn’t think that I could achieve and be whatever I wanted,” she tells her hometown supporters.
In the annals of narrative arcs, Sewell’s story unspools with classical simplicity: from Selma to the Ivy League and back, where on Nov. 2 she was elected Alabama’s first African-American congresswoman. Born two months before “Bloody Sunday,” a March 7, 1965, clash at the Pettus Bridge between protesters and law-enforcement officials that spawned the Voting Rights Act, Sewell has no memory of the civil rights movement. As a beneficiary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, though, Sewell has shattered roadblocks from Selma, where she was the public high school’s first African-American valedictorian; and Princeton, where she wrote a prize-winning thesis about black women politicians; to Birmingham, where she was the first African-American woman to make partner at the law firm Maynard Cooper & Gale, PC.
A year ago, her quest seemed like a long shot. The 44-year-old Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard-educated political novice had taken a leave of absence from her law-firm partnership to run for Congress on her home turf, Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, one of the country’s poorest. Instead, she presided over a two-person campaign staff from her headquarters in a Birmingham storefront around the corner from a pawnshop. Across her L-shaped desk, in a windowless room at the back of her headquarters, lay the effluvia of her quest: a pink laptop, a can of Tab, and a cache of pink highlighters bundled inside a Princeton Class of 1986 mug. On the wall, a poster tracked quarterly fundraising, charting the chasm between her $25,000 haul and her $250,000 goal.
After mining her Ivy League and law-firm contacts, though, she raised $1.77 million, eclipsing her nearest rival more than fourfold, and trounced a field of better-known competitors, including a county commissioner and the son of a former congressman. She nabbed first-place finishes in the June 1 primary and a July 13 runoff, in which she won 55 percent of the vote. In last month’s general election, she coasted to victory, drubbing her Republican opponent, Don Chamberlain, 72 percent to 28 percent.
“That’s the story of my life,” she says of her political journey. “Not seeing the barrier, but getting to the other side.”
Alabama’s 7th Congressional District spans from Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, where most of the voters reside, to a swath of rural counties, known as the Black Belt for the color of its rich agricultural soil. In 2009, the district’s median household income was about $30,900, the fifth-lowest among all districts in the nation. Twenty percent of families, more than twice the national average, live below the poverty line. Sixty-two percent of its residents are African-American. Even in the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans captured control of the House, Alabama’s 7th District, where Obama snared 71 percent of the 2008 vote, remained safe Democratic terrain.
Sewell, whose public-school education vaulted her to the Ivy League, focused her candidacy on economic development and education. In late 2008, she helped spearhead an initiative to recruit Teach for America, the brainchild of Wendy Kopp ’89, to the Black Belt, where the first corps members landed earlier this year. “The heart and soul of the district is the desire to have the American dream,” Sewell says. “People here want to progress. They want the best for their children and grandchildren.”
Sewell grew up as the eldest of three children, anchored by an extended clan of relatives and friends. Her maternal grandfather, a Primitive Baptist minister in Alabama’s rural Lowndes County, dispatched each of his eight children to college, including Sewell’s mother, Nancy Gardner Sewell. As a child, Sewell’s world revolved around Selma’s Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where the Rev. King launched his five-day march to Montgomery, and Selma High School, where her mother was a librarian and her father, Andrew Sewell, taught math and coached basketball. From him, a Selma native who lettered in football, basketball, and track at Alabama State University, she absorbed mental toughness and faith in hard work.
Outside her home and church, Sewell navigated the complexities of post-civil rights Selma. In first grade, her teacher allotted easy assignments to her and her black classmate, reserving more rigorous fare for whites. Sewell told her mother, who complained to the school.
“She never accepted the status quo, from grade school on up,” says Nancy Sewell.
When Terri finished middle school with the highest grades in her class, officials heralded two co-valedictorians: Sewell and a white student who had a lower GPA. Undeterred, Sewell emerged as a leader at Selma High, where blacks slightly outnumbered whites and racial tensions lingered. As one of the few black students in the accelerated academic program, she straddled racial divisions, netting stellar grades and election as homecoming queen. She ran for student government every year and won. “She didn’t back away because it was difficult or the odds were impossible,” remembers Aubrey Larkin, her former assistant principal.
No Selma High student had ever broached the Ivy League, so administrators assumed Sewell would remain in Alabama. But Julian L. McPhillips Jr. ’68, a civil rights attorney in Montgomery, spotted a photograph of her surrounded by debate trophies in a local newspaper. McPhillips called Sewell’s guidance counselor and invited her and her parents to his home.
Sewell landed at Princeton in the fall of 1982, a member of the residential college system’s inaugural class, assigned to Mathey College’s Campbell Hall. Under a program sponsored by the Third World Center, future first lady Michelle Robinson ’85 was her big sister. Sewell, nurtured by an extended community in Selma, thrived at Mathey, a hub within the larger undergraduate universe, a home-away-from-home that eased her adjustment on campus, where only 35 percent of her classmates were women and 7.6 percent were African-American. Socially, Sewell gravitated toward the familiar: cheerleading and student government. Long a mascot and cheerleader for her father’s teams, she joined the varsity cheerleading squad, and she served as freshman class social chairwoman.
Compared to high school, when Sewell tackled about two hours of homework per night, Princeton’s academic demands proved unnerving. Many classmates had weathered rigorous college-preparatory curricula at institutions with greater resources than Selma High, especially in the sciences, and Sewell, bent on reaping A’s, played catch-up. Five or six nights a week, she sequestered herself deep down in Firestone Library, armed with a Diet Coke, and studied for five to six hours. She availed herself of precepts — and for Professor Alan S. Blinder ’67’s Economics 101 midterm, a tutor — asking professors for guidance.
As she had in Selma, she sought commonality among diverse groups. Working in concert with the admission office, she helped recruit minority students, providing campus tours. She dined at the Third World Center, where many African-American students convened for meals. But while some black students of the era, including the first lady, have discussed feeling stigmatized on campus, Sewell jumped into the mainstream social scene. Along with a handful of black classmates, she joined Cap and Gown, one of two co-ed selective eating clubs (with Tower). She perceived cliques at Cap, but says she did not feel unwelcome. “Terri,” remembers her friend Angela Kennedy Acree ’85, “was an equal-opportunity socializer.”
Thinking she would return to Selma and run for Congress, Sewell burnished her résumé, including a stint as junior class vice president. Every summer, she interned on Capitol Hill for members of Alabama’s congressional delegation. She also cultivated mentors such as history professor and Mathey College master Nancy Weiss Malkiel, now Princeton’s dean of the college. “We were all sure she was headed for a political career,” Malkiel says.
Even Sewell’s 145-page senior thesis for the Woodrow Wilson School, titled “Black Women in Politics: Our Time Has Come,” illustrated her political instincts. For the capstone, she interviewed former Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American congresswoman, who granted her a four-hour audience. In her final thesis chapter, Sewell distilled Chisholm’s wisdom — and that of others she consulted — into a black women’s political-empowerment road map. Network, Sewell wrote, and scout out mentors. Establish a fundraising mechanism. Project self-confidence and a positive image. Know the issues and be prepared to work twice as hard, just to be perceived as viable. And, as Chisholm said, “Find things that will touch the very nerve or fiber of the people who are not like you.’”
Chisholm, Sewell recalls, “was bigger than life.”
After graduation, Sewell headed to Oxford on a scholarship to study politics and then to law school at Harvard. There, Professor Charles J. Ogletree, the son of an Alabamian, steered her toward a clerkship for U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first black federal jurist. Completing her clerkship, Sewell set out for New York, where she logged a decade at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, representing clients such as Louis Vuitton and Coach and paying off her student loans. In 2004, she moved to Birmingham to aid in the care of her father, who had suffered a series of strokes that left him wheelchair-bound.
Back in Alabama, ensconced about 90 minutes from her parents, Sewell forged a practice in the bond department at Maynard Cooper, helping historically black colleges restructure their debt. She indulged in the totems of success: a BMW 545i, a house in a gated community, a vacation getaway in Rosemary Beach, Fla. Coming home, she says, was “the best thing I ever did.”
Her political ambitions, so pressing as an undergraduate, remained dormant until March 2007, when she filed into Selma’s Brown Chapel to commemorate “Bloody Sunday.” Inside the sanctuary, then-Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama, a Harvard Law contemporary, praised the civil rights movement’s elders, “the Moses generation.” To his peers in “the Joshua generation,” he issued a challenge, chiding them to tackle the movement’s unfinished business: economic and educational inequality and inadequate health care. For Sewell, sitting in her childhood house of worship, it was as if Obama had singled her out — at one point, even looking right at her.
“Here was a schoolmate of mine, in my home church, delivering the speech before we did the symbolic march across the bridge, talking about our generation’s turn,” Sewell says. “What were we going to do?”
That’s when she decided, this time as an adult, to run for Congress.
“I get that I drink deep from a well I didn’t dig,” she says. “The civil rights battles our parents’ generation faced have led to the economic battles our generation is facing. To continue to move forward, we have to make sure those same educational opportunities are available to all.”
Two years after Obama’s visit, when Rep. Artur Davis embarked on a bid for Alabama’s governorship, Sewell leaped into the race for his open seat. Six more candidates plunged into the fray — all African-American, veterans of local and state politics, business, law, and activism. From the outset, Sewell battled her own obscurity. Though she had been in Birmingham, notes Natalie Davis, a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College, Sewell had not connected with the political community.
Other obstacles arose as well. The Congressional Black Caucus endorsed one of her adversaries, Earl Hilliard Jr., a state representative hoping to recapture the seat once held by his father, who was Alabama’s first African-American congressman since Reconstruction. Privately, some Sewell loyalists fretted about her stump speech. As an Ivy-educated attorney, she could be perceived as elitist. But Sewell, whose mother had been the first African-American woman elected to Selma City Council, slogged on, heeding her senior thesis: networking, fundraising, and image-building.
“We worked really, really hard,” she says. “From the start, we said we’d outsmart them, outwork them, and out-raise them. We did all three.”
A prodigious networker, Sewell leaned on Princeton classmates and professional acquaintances from New York and Alabama who opened their checkbooks and filled her campaign coffers. To craft her public image and combat her single-digit name recognition, she blanketed the airwaves with radio and television advertisements — she was the only candidate who could afford network TV — hawking her Black Belt roots and her kinship with the Obamas. Her longtime mentor, Judge Clemon, who had retired from the federal bench, vouched for her in a radio ad and on talk radio.
“It was important for me to define who I was before my opponents did,” she says. “The best defense is me. Getting to know me. There are a lot of adjectives, but ‘aloof’ is not one of them.”
And, with her high-wattage personality and down-home charm, her mix of “y’all” and “awesome,” “foxy,” and “fabulous,” she embodied just what Chisholm had counseled, almost 25 years earlier: a Zelig-like ability to be all things to everyone — like Oprah with a Harvard law degree. To Birmingham colleagues, she loomed as the best and the brightest, an ethical candidate with boardroom presence and White House ties. In the Black Belt, she surfaced as an Obama-generation symbol of hope, proof that rural Alabamians could aim for Princeton and Harvard. “People meet me and see their children in me,” she says.
Still, Sewell’s Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard degrees do not define her, she explains. Her homeward odyssey to the cradle of the Voting Rights Act, her desire as a beneficiary of the post-civil-rights South, to represent the Black Belt’s next generation — they do.
“I am the 7th Congressional District,” she says. “I knew win, lose, or draw, I’d regret not running if I didn’t do it. I felt like this was what I was supposed to do.”
Joan Quigley ’86 is a freelance reporter based outside of Washington, D.C., and the author of The Day The Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy (2007).