Living the Dream: Rep. Terri Sewell

The Alabama congresswoman says beneficiaries of the civil rights movement must pay it forward.

Posted: 08/20/2013 04:14 PM EDT

It would have been awfully hard to grow up during the '70s in a city like Selma, Alabama, without a keen awareness of civil rights history and sacrifices made by the movement's leaders. There's the Bloody Sunday landmark, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and at the other end of it, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four African-American girls were killed in a racially motivated bomb explosion.

"You grow up with a heightened sense of the civil rights movement, but I think it wasn't until I became of age that I really had a great appreciation for the struggle that took place," said Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell in an interview with BET.com.

Sewell is a life-long member of the Brown Chapel AME Church where the Bloody Sunday march began. Her maternal grandparents also owned property along the march's route, which enabled them to offer refuge to protesters on that fateful day.

Decades later, she is the first woman Alabama has sent to Congress, and being African-American makes her election a double milestone. The first piece of legislation Sewell passed is a bill awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the four little girls killed in the church bombing.

"I'm benefitting from the sacrifices and seeds sown by Shirley Chisholm, John Lewis and so many others," says Sewell. "Those of us who are beneficiaries owe it to have a season of service in which we try to give back."

Her time in Washington, so far, has been marred by political gridlock, which has earned lawmakers the reputation of being part of a "do-nothing Congress" and historically low job approval ratings.

Sewell's response has been to work "feverishly" on local programs that promote job readiness workshops and training, from apprenticeships to sessions on basic resume writing and dressing for interview success and promoting public-private partnerships.

"Keeping a strong focus on constituency services is how I hope we're making an impact in our district," Sewell said, adding that the unemployment is gradually decreasing.

The fact that some of the same inequities that existed 50 years ago are still prevalent in many African-American communities today makes the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington even more important.

"When you have incidences like the Trayvon Martin verdict, the erosion of certain fundamental rights like voting, it just reminds us that we're always one Supreme Court justice vote away from losing the progress that has been made," she said. "We can never forget how we got where we are and it's incumbent upon those of us who are beneficiaries of the civil rights movement to make sure that we not only pay tribute to those who came before us, but also pave the way for political and economic empowerment for future generations."

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(Photo: Frank Couch/AL.com/Landov)

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