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Rep. Terri Sewell knew the former President and First Lady before they knew each other

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Rep. Terri Sewell has known former first lady Michelle Obama and former president Barack Obama since before they knew each other. Sewell went to college with Michelle Obama, law school with Barack Obama. (Provided photo)

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

Rep. Terri Sewell has known former first lady Michelle Obama and former president Barack Obama since before they knew each other. Sewell went to college with Michelle Obama, law school with Barack Obama. (Provided photo)
Rep. Terri Sewell has known former first lady Michelle Obama and former president Barack Obama since before they knew each other. Sewell went to college with Michelle Obama, law school with Barack Obama. (Provided photo)

President Barack Obama was on line one.

He was calling to tell Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) that he was signing an executive order designating the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a national monument.

“The first thing I said to him [was], ‘What about Larry Langford? What about Don Siegelman? What about the other things on my list?’” Sewell remembered. “He said, ‘Can you say thank you?’ Then he said, ‘I will be so glad when … maybe I’ll get my friend back when I’m no longer President!’”

Obama left office on Jan. 20, 2017, and one of his last acts as president was signing an executive order establishing the national monument in Sewell’s district—but the congresswoman wanted more.

“I mean, how often is it that you get a call from the President of the United States? So why would I sit there thanking him when I have other things on my plate that I have to worry about?”

Sewell had pushed the president to pardon former Birmingham Mayor Langford and former Alabama Gov. Siegelman, both of whom are currently serving prison terms.

While Obama did not pardon either before leaving office, Sewell has never been shy about leveraging her relationship with both Barack and Michelle Obama to provide better opportunities and resources in her 7th Congressional District, which includes Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, and Selma.

“I was blessed to have had a prior relationship with both the [former] President and [former] First Lady,” Sewell said. “You may recall that I went to college with her, and I went to law school with him. I think I’m a ‘Jeopardy’ question. The answer: ‘Alabama.’ The question: ‘From what state does the member of Congress hail who knew both the First Lady and the President before they knew each other?’”

In March 2015, Sewell was instrumental in getting President Obama to visit Selma during the 50th anniversary commemoration of Bloody Sunday and to speak later that month at Birmingham’s Lawson State Community College, where he addressed payday lending and the need for stronger consumer protections.

My Big Sister

One of her pinch-me moments in Washington, D.C., Sewell said, was sitting in the White House across from Michelle—“my big sister in college who is now the First Lady”—and the President of the United States—“my law school classmate, the big-eared guy who sat at the front of the class, right in front of me in constitutional law.”

She’ll never forget when she was chosen to be part of Obama’s host committee for the State of the Union address, her first as a member of Congress.

“As we were in line waiting to shake his hand before he walked out, I was the last person he greeted. It was maybe one minute to showtime, and he gave me a hug and said, ‘Oh, Terri and I went to law school together.’

“I stopped him and said, ‘Mr. President, with all due respect, you’re about to go out to give the State of the Union, and I have only a few minutes. I’m not in this room because you and I went to law school together, I’m in this room because the people of the 7th Congressional District elected me to tell you about them. … He looked at me and said, ‘I thought this was the State of the Union, not the State of Alabama.’”

Like the Obamas, Sewell is fond of books and education, which is how she crossed paths with both. First with her “big sister” Michelle Robinson at Princeton and later with Barack Obama at Harvard Law.

“Education levels the playing field, and it is how people like myself and people from our district have been able to succeed in life,” said Sewell, the first black valedictorian of Selma High School in 1982. “It’s through education, and only through education, that a little black girl from Selma could go to Princeton and Oxford and Harvard Law School … and compete with the best and the brightest.”

At Princeton, Sewell remembers her freshman year “living in the bowels of the library. Good thing I love libraries, right?”

Her mother, Nancy Gardner Sewell, was a high school librarian. And in 1993 she was the first African-American woman elected to Selma’s City Council, where she served 11 years.

“When I graduated at the top of my class in Princeton, I thought to myself, ‘All these parents had spent all this money sending all these kids to prep school, and I had gone to Selma High School in Selma, Ala.—and here I was.’”

Sewell has remained supportive of the Obamas and is aware of their place in history.

“Look, I remember talking to Michelle Robinson Obama when she was speaking at Tuskegee University [in May 2015], and it was one of the first times she really talked about her race openly, right? The Tuskegee commencement speech,” Sewell said.

“When she got off the stage, I gave her a huge hug and said, ‘Big sis, you really rocked it! I saw in your speech for the first time in a long time the Michelle that I remembered at Princeton.’

“She’s always been here, but I think they’d spent a lot of time—‘they,’ meaning the people around the Obama administration—really proving that he was the President for all of America when, ultimately, there is a specialness about them because they’re African-American, and the [former] President, and the [former] First Lady.”