“We still have a long way to go to insure equal rights to vote in America. Old battles have become new again” – Selma Congresswoman Terri Sewell
Selma, Alabama is known as the birthplace of the Voting Rights Movement. Perhaps that’s why, Selma has a very complicated and conflicted history; a history of civil war and civil rights.
“We are Selma, from the blood-stained fields of the Civil War, to the blood-stained bridge,” said 38-year-old Selma Mayor Darrio Melton, during the 52nd Anniversary of the infamous Edmund Pettis Bridge Crossing Jubilee at the iconic Browns Chapel AME church. “We are the birthplace of democracy. We believe that so goes Selma, so goes the nation. We are not the country we aim to be, but we are much better than we used to be. ”
On March 7, 1965, African-Americans seeking voting rights launched a march across the bridge in route to Montgomery but were viciously attacked by police and forced to retreat because of the onslaught. That violent episode, which was captured on national TV and shown around the world, became known as "Bloody Sunday."
The march is credited with helping build momentum for passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1996, according to the Associated Press.
“Selma, was once, the Capitol of the Confederacy; buried here in Selma, Alabama are several very famous Confederate generals,” said Congresswoman Terri Sewell, a Selma native and Democrat, who represents Alabama’s 7th District. “It is where the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement meet. In many ways it defines Alabama, and the complicated nature of our state – that we could have the fight for independence of southern states right here, and the fight for civil rights and civil liberties here.”
Rep. Sewell is a star political product of the modern-day Selma, and the South. She is a third-generation leader of this iconic southern Black Belt rural city. The personable political dynamo is also a rising influencer within the Congressional Black Caucus, and as a ranking member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“I’m a member of Congress because of the nurturing that I received from the folks right here in Selma, “ she told her constituents and Congressional colleagues attending the “Jubilee” service at Brown’s Chapel AME. “It is a credit to blacks and whites in Selma; that out of the painfulness of the ‘60’s, that there was a galvanizing effort to really bring white and black Selma together. I am the by-product of that.”
Selma has come through a lot of trials and tribulations. It is also a town undergoing a tough transition. It once had a thriving population of 40,000 when Rep. Sewell was growing up. There was a very interesting and eclectic mix of people living there because of the nearby Craig Air Force Base, which was a bustling U.S. Air Force Pilot Training facility. It closed in 1977. Now, Selma is a struggling city of 19,000 folks.
“I am honored to have been a member of Congress representing Selma during the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March,” Rep Sewell proudly recalled. “Two years ago, we Faith and Politics [members], gathered on the bridge with some 100 members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, and two Presidents – President Barack Obama and President Bush. President Bush was here because it was on his watch that the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 2006, and it passed overwhelmingly by both Houses of Congress. Boy, have we come a long way we thought.”
Rep Sewell continued ruefully, “Old battles have become new again. I never thought we would be fighting in Congress again for women’s reproductive rights. I thought we had won that battle. It just goes to show you that we must be ever vigilant in our fight for human rights, civil rights and civil liberties and voting rights. Every generation has to fight for the gains of the past and press forward,” she preached passionately to the Brown Chapel’s packed and attentive audience.
Congresswoman Sewell has emerged as a vibrant and visionary new voice and political activist, echoing the spunky soul of Selma icons such as the late Amelia Boynton Robinson and attorney J.L. Chestnut. Amelia Boynton Robinson was a civil rights pioneer from Selma who championed voting rights for African Americans and was also brutally beaten on “Bloody Sunday”. She was also the first black woman to run for Congress in Alabama.
Chestnut was a charismatic author, attorney, and a forceful figure in the Civil Rights Movement. He was the first African-American attorney in Selma, and the author of the autobiographical book, Black in Selma, which chronicles the history of the Selma Voting Rights Movement.
“We still have a long way to go to insure equal rights to vote in America,” Rep. Sewell continued emotionally and emphatically. “We have to stand firmly on our own two feet to make sure we are doing the work to make sure we are paying forward. Who are we of the ‘Joshua’ generation going to do to honor the courage, the vigilance of the ‘Moses’ generation? Each year we have a ‘Kumbaya’ moment on that Pettis Bridge, and then go back to the United States Congress, and do nothing.”
Since the election of President Donald Trump, Atlanta Congressman John Lewis –who was brutally beaten and bloodied in 1965 on the Edmund Pettis Bridge along with the late SCLC firebrand, Hosea Williams, and others --has been the target of derisive and demeaning Tweets and verbal assaults and accusations by the President.
“I’m not going to talk about that,” Rep. Lewis told this reporter in an exclusive interview. “I have not changed. I’m inspired more than ever before to go out and do my very best every day. To come back to Alabama – to go to Birmingham, to Montgomery, to Selma – it makes me more than grateful to witness the changes that I’ve seen. To see all these young people, one was 15, to march across the Bridge today. To see this young African American man as mayor of Selma. We had people during the time I was here that were so vicious and so mean, but now to have and witness three people of color elected as mayor [of Selma], and to have a Terri Sewell in Congress.”
Rep. John Lewis said he believes the racial climate and circumstances have progressed in Selma and throughout the South. “There is a greater sense of hope and optimism more than anything else all across the South,” he told this newsman. “It is the result of people getting the right to vote, people not giving up, and people being inspired by the election of President Obama. It makes me more than happy.”