The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a gospel inspired by the teachings of the abolitionist pastor Theodore Parker, who observed in an 1853 sermon: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
King focused the language into a call for faith and perseverance that told the civil rights marchers of the following century, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Those words inspired hope. But they also raised a question among Americans who were impatient for the arrival of the daybreak of freedom that had been so long deferred. How might this bending be measured? When might we see the transformational change that was not just promised but desperately needed?
History teaches us that there are many measures. But few will be more profound than the election to the United States Senate of the senior pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of King, US Representative John Lewis, and so many of the movements to which those iconic Americans devoted their lives.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a 51-year-old progressive with a long record of preaching, marching, and organizing for economic, social, and racial justice, who will in short order be the first Black senator from the Deep South state of Georgia, claimed his victory in a January 5 runoff election with references to King and Lewis and to his 82-year-old mother, who “as a teenager growing up in Waycross, Georgia, used to pick somebody’s else’s cotton.”
“Today, because this is America, 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,” the newly elected senator declared. “So, I stand before you as a man who knows that the improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America could only happen here.”
That it happened in Georgia represents a vital turn in American politics. “We were told we couldn’t win this election, but tonight we proved that, with hope, hard work, and the people by our side, anything is possible,” said Warnock. He was right, and his fellow Senate Democrats would do well to embrace that sense of possibility, as it has transformed their party’s circumstance.
Runoff victories by two Democrats—Warnock and Jon Ossoff, a 33-year-old former aide to Lewis—will give President-elect Joe Biden governing majorities in both houses of Congress. It also gives Democrats reason to believe that Stacey Abrams, the architect of so many of the voter registration and voter mobilization strategies that elected Warnock and Ossoff, will win the governorship of Georgia in 2022.
A state that was once part of the Confederacy and that well into the mid-20th century was sending arch segregationists to the Congress will now be represented by the first Black Democrat elected to the Senate from a southern state, and by the first Jewish senator from the south since the direct election of senators began with the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.
This bending of the arc has been a long time coming. One year before Warnock was born, Maynard Jackson was inspired by the assassinations of King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy to mount a 1968 Democratic primary challenge to segregationist Senator Herman Talmadge. It was an audacious move by a 30-year-old Black lawyer who was taking on the former governor and veteran senator of a state where one of the South’s crudest foes of the civil rights movement, Lester Maddox, was serving as the governor—and where voters would that same year back the presidential candidacy of George Wallace, the Alabama governor who had “stood in the schoolhouse door” to block integration.
Maynard Jackson lost that race but built the momentum for change that would eventually lead to his election in 1973 as the first Black mayor of Atlanta. He also pointed to the prospect that, one day, a Southern state would elect a progressive Democrat inspired by King to the Senate. The question, Jackson assured us, was not a matter of if but when.
Only two years earlier, the first Black senator of the modern era had been elected: Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts.
Brooke was featured on magazine covers, and his win was hailed as a harbinger of the change that was surely coming to the United States. However, it would not be until 1992 that another Black senator, Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, would be elected. And even now, Warnock will serve as one of just three Black senators in the new Senate. With the departure of California Senator Kamala Harris to serve as vice president, Warnock joins New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and South Carolina Republican Tim Scott.
Warnock’s win, and that of Ossoff, resulted from hard work over many years to build what Abrams has described as “a multiracial, multiethnic coalition of urban, suburban, and rural voters.”
Warnock addressed that coalition in his victory speech on election night:
To every Georgian who marched with us, organized with us, prayed for us, fought for us, believed in us, or shared their story and their pain with us—thank you for all your love and support. In the words of Dr. King, who grew up just blocks from where I’m sitting right now, “We are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The newly elected senator speaks from experience. As a pastor and an activist for more than three decades, he has marched for peace and justice, for an end to police violence and for an end to economic violence, for civil rights and equal protection under the law. He has organized, most recently as the chairman of the New Georgia Project, for voting rights. He knows, as does Nsé Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, that “Georgia is a battleground state thanks to the relentless work done toward investing in and turning out voters of color. Senator-elect Raphael Warnock’s win is an extraordinary moment in Georgia’s and our country’s history.”
Ufot explained last Wednesday:
Through Rev. Warnock, voters of color and progressive white voters brought us this much closer to the bold vision for justice and equality we have been organizing for through the years. We are undoing a history of voter suppression and injustice in Black and Brown communities. The changes we are seeing now didn’t happen overnight, and we are not solving our challenges with just one vote.
That’s an important message, as the progress that was achieved last week, while historic, must be understood as tenuous. The Capitol was violently invaded on the day after the Georgia runoff by supporters of President Trump—some carrying the flag of the Confederacy—who were bent on overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election. This deadly assault on the seat of government offered a jarring reminder that the forces of racism and reaction remain a clear and present danger to the republic. To counter that threat, Biden and Senate Democrats must use the opportunity they have been afforded by the Warnock and Ossoff victories to show that government can deliver transformational change for the great mass of Americans.
To lock in progress, Democrats must use their newfound power to address the voter suppression that still haunts electoral politics in states across this country. They must also be prepared to challenge the cruel strategies that were on display as the campaign of Ossoff’s Republican rival, Senator David Perdue, employed anti-Semitic images in ads targeting the Democrat. And when the Republican whom Warnock beat, Senator Kelly Loeffler, attacked the pastor as a “socialist” and a “radical,” and deliberately misinterpreted the Democrat’s sermons so frequently that he finally declared during their last debate, “She’s lied, not only on me, but on Jesus.”
Loeffler made a bad mistake in attacking Warnock’s faith in the power and potential of a social justice gospel. The Democrat’s moral clarity was his great strength as a first-time candidate for statewide office. He did not shy away from taking progressive positions, reminding voters that he grew up in a public housing project and explaining, “I’ve been fighting for access to affordable health care, I’ve been fighting for voting rights, I’ve been fighting for essential workers, ordinary people, because I know what it’s like to be an ordinary person.” And he did not shy away from the history that he, and the voters of Georgia, were making for their state and for their country.
“In this moment in American history, Washington has a choice to make, we all have a choice to make,” Warnock explained as he claimed his victory. “Will we continue to divide, distract, and dishonor one another or will we love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Will we play political games while real people suffer or will we win righteous fights together, standing shoulder to shoulder, for the good of Georgia, for the good of our country? Will we seek to destroy one another as enemies or heed the call towards the common good, building together what Dr. King called ‘the beloved community’?”
Warnock answered his own questions with an expression of the bend-the-arc faith that King championed.
“I know we can beat this pandemic with science and common sense,” he declared. “I know we can rebuild a fairer economy by respecting the dignity of work and the workers who do it. An economy that honors those whom we now call ‘essential workers’ by paying them an essential wage, providing them essential benefits. I know we can move closer to justice with empathy and understanding, passion, and purpose.”