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Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell on the ongoing fight for voting rights

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This weekend, lawmakers, activists and supporters - Vice President Kamala Harris among them - gathered in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the larger campaign by Black citizens of the South to exercise their right to vote. Bloody Sunday is so-called because on Sunday, March 7, 1965, the day the first attempt to march from Selma to the Alabama capital of Montgomery began, state troopers and their accomplices violently attacked the unarmed men and women, causing serious injury to many but provoking national outrage.

We're just back from a reporting trip to Alabama ourselves, where we spoke with officials and activists about the current conflict over voter access and voting rights. That's one reason we spoke with Congresswoman Terri Sewell. She is a native of Selma and now represents Alabama's 7th Congressional District, which includes Selma and other historic cities like Birmingham and Montgomery. It's also the only one of the state's seven districts that's majority African American. Not surprisingly, she's the state's sole African American and Democratic representative in Congress. And that's a data point at the center of the latest controversy in the state's long history of battles over fair access to the polls. Representative Sewell says the fact that she is the only African American representing the state in Congress points up the problem.

TERRI SEWELL: Alabama is comprised of 27% African American. And there are seven seats in Alabama's congressional delegation, and there's only one that is represented by an African American. And we deserve to have 27% of the seats, which would be another seat. I was proud to see that several lawsuits were filed about that. And, you know, packing my district means that my other colleagues don't have to even listen to the issues and concerns of African Americans in their district. And that's not fair. It's about voter dilution, is what it is. Not to get into the legalese of it, but just on the representation, African Americans need to be represented more in the state of Alabama. And Alabama is not the only one - Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, all of which have populations of African Americans that hover around 30%. And so times, they need to be a-changing (ph).

But if you told me as a little girl sitting at Brown Chapel AME Church, my home church in Selma, that I would grow up and become Alabama's first Black congresswoman, or yet still that the issue that I would have to carry is the issue of voting rights - surely that issue had been decided by the John Lewises of the world who made major sacrifices for the Voting Rights Act and the eventual election of African Americans across a host of offices, political offices. But my cause is now their cause because the reality is that old battles have become new again. We see state legislatures all across this country imposing tougher and more barriers for people to vote.

MARTIN: What are you most concerned about? Your concern - you've said you're concerned that the Voting Rights Act will actually have no oversight at all. But what else? Are there state-level initiatives that concern you right now? - because the state legislature is meeting right now. And I know that's not your primary responsibility, but is it no longer so much the legal framework? Is it the administrative interpretation? Is that what you're mainly concerned about?

SEWELL: Well, I'm concerned about every state, especially my state, because I represent my state. But the fact is that after what was ostensibly the most secure election ever, the most voter participation ever in this presidential election, you saw state legislatures across this country introduce 400 - over 400 - bills that would restrict voting, and 39 of them passed. And now this new legislative cycle of states like Alabama are considering more restrictive laws. And so I visited with the state of Alabama, my - the Black caucus, the Alabama Legislators - Legislative Black Caucus. And I think everybody is concerned that, without federal oversight - and let's just face it; we wouldn't have the Voting Rights Act of 1965 if it wasn't for federal intervention, whether that was the court systems and judges like Frank Johnson, who allowed - who granted the injunction to make Alabama stay away so that the marchers could march from Selma to Montgomery. It was federal intervention that really gave us and helped implement a lot of the very important desegregation and access issues that deal with race.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who argue that this isn't racist gerrymandering; it's partisan gerrymandering? Their argument is that - the argument is that, yes, there are advantaging Republicans, but it's not because they're white. It's because they're Republicans. How do you respond to that?

SEWELL: The argument is it is a violation of the Constitution to - the one person, one vote concept. And so this is not about partisan. Yes, it may look like it's partisan just because African Americans tend to vote Democratic. Not all of us are monolithic, by the way. But the reality is that the reason why we should care and the federal government does care is because race discrimination is a protected class. And the fact that these districts are being packed with African Americans and Hispanics - I mean, frankly, the Latino community is affected just like we are affected in states like Texas and Florida.

And so I think that it just is - it is about voter dilution. I think that all of my Alabamians wish to have their voices heard. And I can tell you that many think that their voices are not being heard because their legislators don't agree with them, don't look like them, don't come and visit their communities, are not engaged with them. And the reality is that we represent everyone in our districts, not just some of the people.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, though, you have a very distinguished biography. You're obviously very committed to this work. You are gifted in this work. But do you ever worry that really the intention is to discourage people who are not as motivated as you are? - because people often point to the historic voter turnout in - both in 2016 and then in 2020 and say there is no need for these protections because look at the voter turnout. But do you ever worry that people may be turned out because they were mad and motivated then, but that after constantly fighting for this, they will get tired and discouraged and they won't understand what is the point? One of the points that you were making earlier in our conversation is you said that you - you know, that people don't feel that they're represented. If that continues, do you ever worry that people will just give up?

SEWELL: Absolutely. I think, you know, one of the biggest threats to our democracy is voter apathy. Voters have to feel vested - vested in the election, vested in the people who are representing them. And, you know, I am encouraged by how many young people are now getting more interested in politics and being more engaged on progressive issues that matter to them. That's a bright spot. But, yes, a threat to our democracy is voter apathy.

But I think that what we have to do, we who are in this fight, is to, time and time again, be able to show, you know, our constituents how their vote benefits them. People in Selma were mad that we didn't pass the Voting Rights Act. I'm just going to say that. My constituents, a lot of my home folk, were evil (ph). But I had to remind them that their vote in voting for this administration got them the American Rescue Plan within the first hundred days, which was money directly in their pockets in a third round of stimulus, which was shots in arms, which was money to - for small businesses, which helped put people back to work.

I also reminded them, as I did today, that we also, by going to the polls and voting for, you know, an elected officer like the Biden-Harris administration, we have now the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will totally change the landscape of the nation when it comes to broadband. That's a big priority, I can think, across this nation.

But, you know, voters are often what have you done for me lately? Now it's inflation. Now it's high interest rates. Now it's gas. And so we just have to be ever vigilant to make sure that those of us who have voting rights as a top priority, that we continue to magnify the reasons why it's important and that we convince those who don't think it's important why we need to protect it. We need to give greater access for it, and we need to have federal oversight when state governments run amuck.

Those, to me, are the reasons why I get up in the morning and why, as long as I have breath in my body, I will continue to fight for the legacy that is my district. I represent the wonderful people of these historic cities today, but I also represent the legacy of these ordinary people who achieved extraordinary social change for America. That's a huge honor, and it's a great responsibility. But if a girl from Selma can't get it done, or won't take this as her badge of honor, then who will?

MARTIN: Congresswoman Terri Sewell, thank you so much for joining us.

SEWELL: Thank you. I've really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about voting rights and to talk about why it's so important in my wonderful district. So I thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.