It seemed that Jan. 6 would be a day marked by the attack on the U.S. Capitol, rife with vicious bigotry and threats to democracy. However, history briefly diverged toward long-awaited hope for progress and inclusivity: The Rev. Raphael Warnock won the runoff election and became Georgia’s first Black senator and first Black Democrat representing a Southern state in the U.S. Senate. Along with the other runoff win by Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, who at 33 is the youngest Democratic senator since Joe Biden, Democrats regained the senate majority and took full control of the Congress for the first time in over a decade.
It is both a haunting and powerful feat: On the day that Warnock was elected to become the 11th African American to serve in the U.S. Senate, scenes of the White House riddled with racist propaganda lay as stark reminders that racism still runs deep throughout the country. Yet alongside the ushering in of a new decade with Kamala Harris as the nation’s first Black, first South Asian, and first female vice president, Warnock’s victory gave a brief moment of hope, despite the horrific attacks of white supremacy unfolding that day at the Capitol.
Warnock, 51, spoke often on the campaign trail about his experience growing up in Savannah’s public housing with 11 siblings, spending summers picking tobacco and cotton, and watching his father preach to underprivileged, working-class communities in their church. In his victory speech, Warnock again made mention of his family, speaking of his mother’s experience growing up in the South.
“The other day, because this is America,” said Warnock, “the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States Senator.”
Warnock went on to become a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta—spiritual home of Georgia Congressman John Lewis, as well as of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who served there as co-pastor from 1960 to 1968. On Jan. 17, the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Warnock once again stood at the pulpit of his church in a live-streamed sermon that paid tribute to King’s work and spoke of “God’s Vision for the Land” through equity, integrity, possibility, and inclusivity.
“In this season in which a dense fog rests over our national life...we feel like we are living in exile,” said Warnock at his sermon, his voice crescendoing with emotion. “A land made strange by a pandemic, a land made strange by an economic turn down, a land made strange by a political speech and rhetoric that continues to reach new lows, a land made strange when we witnessed the unthinkable as the very House of the People was attacked by those who are driven by the worst impulses, stirred up by demagogues.”
The Book of Isaiah, which speaks of the Babylonian exile, was what Warnock focused on in his sermon. He also emphasized God’s “vision of equity,” of freedom and economic equality.
“That’s what Dr. King’s last big push was all about...his last big push was the Poor People’s Campaign,” said Warnock, referencing the 1986 effort for economic justice that continues today. “After the Voting Rights Law was passed in 1965 and the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, Dr. King said, ‘I fought so that folk could sit at a counter and order a hamburger, now I’ve got to fight so that they can afford the hamburger.’”
Warnock spoke about Dr. King’s subsequent turn to Memphis to protest with the Memphis sanitation strike, which began in response to the deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. During a torrential downpour on Feb. 1, 1968, the Memphis public works department still required its sanitation workers—all Black men—to work regardless of the danger presented by the flooding sewers. Cole and Walker took shelter from the rain in the back of one of the garbage trucks, so-called “weiner barrels,” infamous for their tendency to malfunction. They were tragically pulled into the truck’s compactor and crushed to death. This event sparked a protest that was the culmination of strikes by nearly 1,300 Black workers who had suffered unsafe conditions, neglect and abuse, hazardous equipment, and poverty wages for years.
“So often, time and time again, poor people and Black people and Brown people and marginalized people and struggling people are literally crushed in the machinery of systems that don’t care about them,” he said.
Warnock, who prioritizes rebuilding the economy with fair wages and equitable employment practices, highlighted this in an effort to emphasize the thread of injustice that carries on today. His policy strategies in this area focus on helping communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, ensuring small businesses are driving economic growth, and supporting inclusivity in business ownership.
And though it was more than 50 years ago that Dr. King fought along with others for fair pay, said Warnock, “the tragedy is that the minimum wage had more purchasing power in 1968 than the minimum wage does in 2021. Now we call the ‘Invisible Workers,’ the folk we take for granted, we call them ‘Essential Workers.’ But we refuse to pay them an Essential Wage.”
Linking history to current events, Warnock condemned police brutality, political corruption, drug companies’ perpetuation of the opioid epidemic, and the bigotry and systematic racism that have led to recent protests calling for justice.
“That’s how you know you’re a marginalized person, that’s how you know when you come from an oppressed people—when you have to have a movement, when you have to make a sign, when you have to have a slogan,” Warnock said. “Poor people, marginalized people have to say the obvious and have movements to argue for themselves that which automatically ought to be given to them… [in] recent days, ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
Warnock’s other priorities include environmental justice and clean energy, criminal justice reform, and access to affordable education and healthcare. He and Ossoff were administered the oath of office by Vice President Kamala Harris and sworn in on Jan. 20, hours after Harris’s own swearing-in.
With Dr. King in mind, Warnock stressed the importance of perseverance and unity. “In this strange time of exile, this strange time of spiritual exhaustion,” he said, “the soul of our nation hangs in the balance.”