Most members of Congress crave political security, and Terri Sewell has it. For more than a decade, she’s represented Alabama’s Seventh District, a 61 percent Black hodgepodge that awkwardly links the bustling cities of Birmingham and Montgomery via the sprawling, agriculturally rich Black Belt (named for the region’s dark topsoil), where more than a quarter of residents still live below the federal poverty line. The Seventh has never given her less than 72 percent of the vote.
In 2022, she wants to dismantle it.
“If we’re a quarter of the population, we should be a quarter of the seats,” Sewell told me recently. In last year’s census, Black residents accounted for 27 percent of Alabama’s population. Black voters, however, effectively wield power in just one of its seven districts—even though two districts with slimmer Black majorities would be possible to draw. “I’m for broadening the representation of African Americans across Alabama, instead of concentrating it in my district,” she said.
The current map, passed by the state’s Republicans in 2011, stuffs Black voters into the Seventh District so efficiently that when the Democrat Doug Jones narrowly upset the Republican Roy Moore in a 2017 special election for the U.S. Senate, Jones lost all six of the state’s white-majority districts but prevailed overall thanks to a whopping 57-point margin in the Seventh.
All over the Deep South—in states such as Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—the story is familiar: Gerrymandered maps have packed Black voters into a lone Voting Rights Act district, while Republicans dominate every surrounding white-majority seat. In past decades, many of those VRA districts’ Democratic representatives were loath to unravel their own safe seats. But today, Democrats’ prevailing mentality has shifted. And as the 2022 redistricting wars heat up, multiple lawsuits aiming to unpack hyper-minority seats could help determine control of the House.
Sewell, 56, has sturdy roots in both the rural and urban ends of the Seventh: Her mother, Nancy Gardner Sewell, who passed away in June, won election as Selma’s first Black councilwoman three decades after John Lewis was nearly beaten to death crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Terri Sewell graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law (where she knew Michelle and Barack Obama separately before they met each other), rising to become the first Black woman partner at her law firm in Birmingham, where she now resides.
All of which is to say that breaking the Seventh District in half would be a bittersweet sacrifice. “It would be hard to split up the Black Belt,” she acknowledged. “That is a concern. But for me, the need for another minority-opportunity district overrides that concern.”
The irony is that the creation of Alabama’s Seventh and other districts like it were once major voting-rights breakthroughs. In 1992, these seats birthed new opportunities for Black candidates that hadn’t existed since Reconstruction. But as times and political conditions have changed, many of the same carve-outs that may have been necessary to elect new Black members three decades ago now look more like cul-de-sacs, aiding Republicans more than the cause of equal representation for minority voters.
More than 50 years after the passage of the VRA, the legal framework surrounding race and redistricting remains vague, unsettled, unevenly applied—and slow to keep up with changing political realities.