the system

The Future of Black Politics Is at Stake in Georgia

The legacy of the civil-rights movement may hinge on Raphael Warnock’s reelection campaign.

Photo: Brian Finke
Photo: Brian Finke
Photo: Brian Finke

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On the day Herschel Walker was born, in March 1962, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in The Nation, “The President has proposed a ten-year plan to put a man on the moon. We do not yet have a plan to put a Negro in the State Legislature in Alabama.” Electing Black officials was a key goal of civil-rights activists, who believed it would make lawmakers more accountable to Black interests, and King had become convinced that they were running out of time. Every second of inaction from the federal government, he argued, emboldened the southern ruling class and breathed new energy into its efforts to block desegregation. By the time Raphael Warnock was born in 1969, the Eagle had landed on the moon, but King had been killed, Georgia had two segregationists as U.S. senators, and the path to answering the reverend’s challenge was still dark.

Five decades later, Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, is defending his seat against Walker, the Republican Party’s first Black U.S. Senate nominee in the state. It is a historic spectacle. Just two years ago, Georgia lagged behind Mississippi and South Carolina in never having elected a Black senator; in January, a Black man is guaranteed to continue to represent the state. But given whom Warnock is running against, the race seems less like a fulfillment of King’s vision than a perversion of it. “There are sharp contrasts between me and my opponent,” Warnock said, peering over his rimless glasses, at every stop on his Georgia bus tour this summer.

Warnock is a refined product of Morehouse College and Union Theological Seminary. Since 2005, he has been the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King’s former parish, where the late representative John Lewis was one of his parishioners. He is probably the closest thing to the civil-rights movement’s golden child. “The influences he got at Morehouse are the same influences that came to bear on Martin Luther King,” said Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, congressman, and U.N. ambassador. “He came to Ebenezer not to relax in that grand tradition but to work out of it,” said Bishop William Barber II, who runs the Poor People’s Campaign, a continuation of King’s final project before his assassination. Warnock sees being a politician as an extension of his pastoring, which has made him a moral beacon in Congress. “I just think that to have the State of Georgia represented in the United States Senate by the pastor who holds Dr. King’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church is such a special and important and extraordinary thing,” Jon Ossoff, the senior U.S. senator from Georgia, told me.

Walker, by contrast, is a multi-millionaire ex-athlete and Donald Trump protégé with no political experience who says he is “not that smart.” He “lies like he’s breathing,” one of his aides told the Daily Beast, including about being an FBI agent able to kill COVID with a “dry mist” he keeps in his home. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said “candidate quality” might hurt the GOP’s odds of recapturing a majority in November, it was widely assumed he meant Walker. “He’s the nominee basically because he’s Georgia royalty from football and he’s friends with Trump,” said Matthew Platt, an associate professor of political science at Morehouse.

If Walker were a Democrat, Republicans would have a field day turning him into a classic bogeyman. He is a physically imposing Black man who once put a gun to his white ex-wife’s head and threatened to kill her. Instead, they are exploiting his race in other ways. “This dumb Black jock, the Black buck that is a character type that we are absolutely familiar with,” said Nsé Ufot, the CEO of the voter-outreach organization New Georgia Project. Walker is “playing into that, making white folks comfortable.”

Another potential schism between Walker and his Republican allies emerged in October, when the Daily Beast reported that he had paid for one of his ex-girlfriends to terminate her pregnancy. The evidence included a $575 receipt, a $700 reimbursement check, and a “get well” card. His campaign had just taken a hard right on abortion, and he insisted to Fox News, “This is a flat-out lie.” But his son Christian, a conservative influencer, wasn’t buying it: “You’re not a ‘family man’ when you left us to bang a bunch of women, threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months running from your violence,” he tweeted. Still, by the time Walker debated Warnock on October 14, the scandal had been drowned out by cheers from the right, which surrounded him with Evangelical “prayer warriors” and tweeted that he was “DESTROYING” Warnock onstage.

Warnock and Walker are now essentially running neck and neck, even as the Warnock campaign has spent $50 million in ads, making him this cycle’s highest-spending candidate. It’s a testament to the stubborn power of polarization, and it has made Warnock exceedingly cautious. “I think he looks like a Democrat,” said Platt of the senator’s campaign, “and a vulnerable Democrat.” Other than a few brief interviews with local reporters at his campaign events, Warnock rarely grants access to the press. (He declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.) His stump speech is a litany of poll-tested issues: lowering prescription-drug costs, saving military jobs in Georgia, and getting better health care for veterans. “A woman’s right to choose” has gotten more play since the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade this summer, but the scourge of police violence against Black people, a pillar of his 2020 campaign, gets little mention these days. The young pastor who once said, “The early church was much closer to socialism than to capitalism,” seems like a distant memory.

If you watch this new routine for long enough, as I did following Warnock across Georgia this summer, it can leave the impression that he is more product than person, engineered in a lab to win elections in a newly minted purple state that still feels red. Few strategists doubt the wisdom of this approach, especially with control of the Senate in the balance. But it means one of the defining features of Warnock’s reelection bid is how ordinary it is. “It seems like a very conventional campaign despite the unconventional nature of the candidates themselves,” said Platt.

It’s a remarkable fate for King’s anointed heir, a born orator with radicalism in his theological lineage. It is also a signpost marking the latter-day evolution of the civil-rights movement. Georgia’s first all-Black senate race could have been a time for celebration. Instead, because one candidate has cast his lot with white reactionaries, the racial dynamics of the contest have been warped, forcing Warnock to suppress his instinct for social justice and spotlighting Walker’s worst behavior. Despite Walker’s headline-grabbing antics, it is Warnock’s plight that says more about the state of Black politics in 2022, especially considering where he started out.

The only formal debate between Senator Warnock and Herschel Walker on October 14. Photo: Greg Nash/The Hill

Warnock was born in Savannah, near the coast, and grew up in a public-housing project as the second youngest of 12 children of two Pentecostal pastors, who left their imprint early. His mother walked in on him testifying in a “preach-sing rhythm” to an empty room when he was 6 years old, and he delivered his first real sermon at 11. He decided as a teenager that he wanted to join the clergy and drew inspiration from a recording of King’s speech “A Knock at Midnight,” which he listened to on repeat.

He graduated from Morehouse in 1991. From there, he left Georgia for New York to attend Union Theological Seminary and got work as a youth pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. “That was the beginning of a new, decade-long period of growth and transformation for me,” he wrote in his memoir, A Way Out of No Way, published in June. His boss at Abyssinian was Calvin O. Butts III, a fellow Morehouse grad who had also started out as a youth minister, in 1972; the previous year, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who had run the church for more than 30 years while commuting to Capitol Hill as Harlem’s congressman, stepped down as senior pastor. Butts modeled himself after Powell, wrestling with the idea of running for mayor of New York or even for Congress. He never did, but he drafted Warnock into several of his activist causes, including an infamous 1993 rally against gangsta rap at which he hired a steamroller to crush a pile of CDs. (The plan was thwarted by counterprotesters.)

But Butts’s support of AIDS-treatment initiatives and his work developing low-income housing in the neighborhood caught Warnock’s fancy. Both causes, with their emphasis on lifting up the poor and the abandoned, paired naturally with what he had been learning in school. Union was the academic home of Dr. James H. Cone, a proponent of Black Liberation theology, which holds that Black Power is the true American gospel. Cone advised Warnock’s graduate thesis, a comparison of King’s nonviolent movement and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s more militant rebellion against the Third Reich. Warnock argued that both ministers were unusually courageous in their own ways — King in his fight against Jim Crow, Bonhoeffer in his agitation against the Nazis, who hanged him in 1945 for allegedly plotting to kill Hitler.

His New York education was an invigorating time. Echoes of the church’s erstwhile role at the center of Black political life could still be felt, but its influence was clearly waning. Warnock envisioned a reboot inspired by the activist preachers he had been studying, and in 1999, when four plainclothes NYPD cops shot an unarmed Black man named Amadou Diallo 19 times, Warnock got arrested for protesting. “I’d brought my ministry to the streets, and there was no turning back,” he wrote.

At the same time, he was being called back to Georgia to visit his older brother Keith, who was in prison. Keith had become a Savannah police officer after serving in the Gulf War and was arrested in an FBI sting with ten other cops who had been providing paid security for local drug traffickers. “My disappointment in him was matched by my anger at the criminal-justice system,” Warnock wrote, describing how his brother was sentenced to life in prison for a crime in which nobody had died. (Keith was released in 2020 as part of an effort to stop the spread of COVID inside federal prisons.)

Warnock moved home full time in 2005, when Ebenezer poached him to become its senior pastor at age 35. He was in rare company — one of five people ever to hold that position, an honor that not even King had enjoyed (he was a co-pastor under his father) — but he took it in stride. “He fit right in,” said Young. “He knew more about the church and the community than most folk coming into a new situation.” Less than two months after he started the job, Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, killing 1,800 people and displacing more than 1 million. Warnock raised money for relief efforts and sent a youth ministry to help with the cleanup. Then, in the spirit of King’s old voting drives, he organized a fleet of buses so the storm’s refugees in Atlanta could participate in the New Orleans mayoral election.

Warnock’s visage has barely changed since those days: an open, youthful face sloping downward from a gleaming bald head past adorably wide eyes and resolving in a short goatee. He impressed his new congregation and fellow pastors with his traditionalist stylings — a mix of clever wordplay and the long, vibrating vowel sounds of the Black Baptist church — and a gravitas won through study. “He’s one of the strongest trained theologians of our era,” said Barber.

By the time he joined Ebenezer, a resurgent GOP was running riot in Georgia. Until 2002, the state had experienced 130 uninterrupted years of Democratic governors. That period spanned the party’s growth from a haven for segregationists to a more liberal and multiracial coalition. Then Republican Sonny Perdue broke the streak and enticed some turncoats to gift him a governing trifecta. “A lot of people switched parties,” said DuBose Porter, a former state representative who chaired the Georgia Democratic Party from 2013 to 2019. “Republicans cut so many programs” in that time, he added, including education funding, the pride of the last Democratic administration. Perdue also allowed a Confederate emblem back onto the state flag, embraced climate denialism, and took a hard line on undocumented immigration, requiring cops to check the status of anyone they arrested. In 2010, he appointed Brian Kemp, a former state senator, to oversee Georgia’s elections, and Kemp entrenched the most comprehensive set of voter restrictions in the country in a callback to Jim Crow.

Atlanta politicos started urging Warnock to run for office, but he felt the timing wasn’t right. State politics had shifted rightward in the early aughts, but an influx of new residents was changing the makeup of the suburbs around Atlanta, many of which were longtime conservative strongholds. As the region got younger, Blacker, and more highly educated, it became friendlier territory for Democrats, which intrigued the pastor and made Republicans nervous. Kemp purged thousands of names from Georgia’s voter rolls, a gambit that overwhelmingly disenfranchised Black and poor voters, while claiming that fraud was endemic and encouraging “an increase of vigilantism” to stop it, recalled Bee Nguyen, a Democratic state representative now running for secretary of state.

Kemp successfully ran for governor in a 2018 election that he oversaw, defeating Warnock’s friend Stacey Abrams. But Warnock was encouraged by Abrams’s near success. Then in 2019, Republican U.S. senator Johnny Isakson retired with two years left on his term, and Kemp appointed a local businesswoman and GOP benefactor named Kelly Loeffler to fill his seat. The timing meant she would have to defend her new post in a special election the next year, and Warnock decided to run against her. He had high-minded ambitions for the job, writing in his memoir, “The country was deeply divided and could use another moral voice.” But he was also clear-eyed about what winning would require. “It was a delicate dance,” he writes. “I was a Black man challenging a white woman, and I couldn’t come off as too aggressive.” To keep his image soft, aides put Warnock in a puffer vest and had him pose petting a beagle in the Atlanta suburbs.

It’s a testament to his knack for balancing politics and religion that he could remain outspoken about police violence without alienating too many of these wary voters. Campaigning while leading Ebenezer during a pandemic had plenty of challenges — lots of remote events broadcast from empty rooms — even before a Minneapolis cop murdered George Floyd. American cities erupted, and Warnock, who had been declaiming against the police slayings of unarmed Black people for decades, made it the subject of his next sermon. “To put your dusty knee on the neck of another man,” he said, “is to arrogate to yourself things that belong to God.” Less than a month later, after an Atlanta cop killed Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot less than ten minutes from Ebenezer’s front door, Warnock said from the pulpit at his funeral, “If your skin is the weapon and your complexion is the crime, what do you do to stay alive?”

Much of the country seemed to agree. In the lead-up to the election, opinion polling was more favorable than ever to the Black Lives Matter protests, and a record number of Americans stormed the streets to demonstrate. Democrats rushed to affiliate themselves with the suddenly popular movement; kente stoles and big promises were in fashion on Capitol Hill. Much of it felt forced, but Warnock’s response seemed organic — he was a pastor attending to the sorrows of his flock. Along with a wave of anti-Trump sentiment, these trends helped lift him to victory in the runoff election on January 5, 2021, the day before Trumpists stormed the U.S. Capitol and exposed, in unusually visceral ways, the fragility of America’s democratic institutions.

It was a moment Warnock seemed made for. Not since Barack Obama had such a transcendent figure graced the Democratic caucus. He was also, along with his Senate running mate Ossoff, one of the crucial last two votes Democrats needed to pass Joe Biden’s agenda. “He came as everybody’s hero,” Sherrod Brown, the senior U.S. senator from Ohio, told me, and he adjusted to Senate life with remarkable fluidity. “He jumped into some of the big issues and key debates right from the start.”

Warnock has gotten only more popular in the two years since. He is “universally respected, not just in the Democratic caucus but across the Senate,” said Ossoff. It’s easy to see why. He has an ability to inflate his colleagues’ sense of higher purpose by framing policy in moral and spiritual terms: A vote is “a kind of prayer,” a national budget is a “moral document.” “He talks about infrastructure and ties it to faith,” said Nguyen, describing a rhetorical motif that complemented the party’s sense of momentum this summer. After passing the first major gun-control legislation in 30 years, a significant infrastructure package, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which both expanded health-care access and contained historic provisions to combat climate change, Democrats were practically glowing, and none of it would have been possible without Warnock.

But his entry into Congress remains haunted by a bigger crisis in Black politics. The American uprisings of 2020 were suppressed in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., by Black leaders who had come to be seen as managers of inequality, not allies against it, as the academic Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has written. Warnock had as good a chance as anyone to bridge the interests of Black-movement and Establishment politics. “You need both,” said Barber. “It’s not an either-or.” Instead, after the backlash that greeted the “defund the police” activists, Warnock, like most of his party, has taken on a smaller profile within the movement to rein in cops. He consigned himself to being vote No. 50 for an agenda that, while ambitious in relative terms, still relied on the median Georgia voter’s approval. If he wins six more years, he’ll be one of three Black senators on hand for the likely decimation of affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act, which are both in the Supreme Court’s crosshairs.

“He is — I think admirably — really trying to both be true to his own background while also trying to appeal to a broader white voting population,” Platt said. Attending to a range of issues, from “minor celebrations of Black cultural heritage” to confronting “maternal mortality from a discrimination lens,” has landed Warnock on what has typically been the riskier side of being a “Black senator” versus a “senator who happens to be Black,” said Platt. But “to be more cynical about it,” he added, Warnock “knows that, even though in the statewide office he’s going to need a bunch of white people to vote for him, he also needs all the Black people to vote for him.”

That is increasingly true of the Democratic Party as a whole, especially in the South, where partisan divides fall largely along racial lines. The effect is that Warnock looks less like a shining anomaly than like a typical Democrat with a by-the-numbers campaign to match. That void is felt at home, too. “This may be a silly way to think about it, but my sense is that Warnock is not getting shouted out in Atlanta rappers’ songs,” said Platt. “When Obama was running, there were all these Obama verses — where are the Warnock ones? There are going to be a bunch of Black people in Atlanta who would have lived through this historic moment and not realized it.”

If Warnock prevails, it may have little to do with anything unusual his campaign is doing. “None of them are running against Herschel Walker,” Ufot said, explaining why Warnock has been outpolling the other Democrats on his ticket, including Stacey Abrams, who has consistently trailed Kemp in their gubernatorial rematch.

Walker was born in Wrightsville, a rural town of 2,000 residents two hours west of where Warnock was born. He cultivated his body as Warnock did his spirit and acquired a mythic reputation as a high-school football star, reportedly subsisting on one meal and a combined 1,000 push-ups and sit-ups a day. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Wrightsville was wracked by racial strife. Black residents protested their mistreatment at the local sheriff’s office, and white deputies responded by laying into them with nightsticks and calling them “niggers.” One night, two Klansmen fired on a Black family’s home with shotguns. Walker kept his distance, endearing himself to the town’s white residents. “He was a smart kid,” Jimmy Moore, who is white and was one of Walker’s assistant football coaches, told Politico. Black people were less impressed. “What Herschel Walker doesn’t understand is that when he stops carrying that football, he has to return to the Black community,” said longtime civil-rights activist Hosea Williams at the time.

His heroic tenure at the University of Georgia was cut short when the United States Football League, a short-lived NFL competitor, came calling. “He was too good a player for them to let him become a student,” said Young. The USFL team he played for before going to the NFL was owned by Donald Trump, and the two became close. Their bond got tighter when he appeared as a contestant on season two of NBC’s The Apprentice.

For most of Trump’s tenure, the main qualification needed for a Black person to win his approval was to lavish him with praise. “Yes, I would,” Walker said at the recent debate when asked if he’d support Trump if he ran in 2024. “I won’t leave my allies.” He is now the most politically accomplished Black celebrity to throw his lot in with the former president, a cohort that includes Kanye West. He has also demonstrated Trump’s and West’s knack for attracting tabloid attention — if not Trump’s skill at manipulating it to his advantage or West’s pathological thirst for it. Each new revelation about his history of violence, his struggles with mental health, or his sex life sparks another lurid news cycle underscoring the sense that he is more a token than a viable leader. “It is the height of disrespect,” Ufot said of Walker’s candidacy. “What it means is that Republicans are cynical. What it means is that Herschel Walker is the 2022 Sarah Palin.”

Warnock, for his part, has been reluctant to use Walker’s sordid personal history as ammunition. He refers to Walker obliquely and shrouds his attacks in euphemism. “My opponent has a problem with the truth,” he often says. During the October 14 debate in Savannah, Warnock seemed walled in by caution as Walker gleefully blitzed through a series of GOP talking points. “Instead of aborting those babies, why are you not baptizing those babies?” he asked Warnock. He flashed a prop badge at the accusation that he isn’t a real law-enforcement agent. (He isn’t.) He interrupted Warnock regularly and talked over both the senator and the debate moderators. At one point, he tried to undermine Warnock’s legislative efforts to lower the cost of insulin by saying that people with diabetes needed to “eat right.” Warnock kept a straight face and leaned harder into the message he hopes will cut through the noise: “My opponent is not ready to represent the people of Georgia.”

Warnock seems intent on maintaining an image as a man above the fray, the beagle-hugging pastor with the amiable demeanor. It’s hard to blame him: Trading blows with Walker, whose unfitness for office is as glaring as the senator’s qualifications are sterling, risks debasing him and could even come off as bullying. When the stakes are this high, though, it’s hard to do an accurate cost-benefit analysis of keeping one’s dignity. For Warnock, losing in November could mean a ready-made governing trifecta for the GOP, should it retake the White House in 2024, and a decade or more of Democrats being locked out of power in the Senate owing to their structural disadvantages on the electoral map. Looming over it all is a draconian new anti-choice regime headlined by Senator Lindsey Graham’s recent bill to ban abortion at the federal level.

Republican attack ads have sought to characterize Warnock as a Biden-toady spendthrift. That message risks resonating in a city like Warner Robins, where the price of gas was $3.49 a gallon when I caught up with the senator’s tour bus there in August. “We are the gem of Middle Georgia,” Mayor LaRhonda Patrick told me, but the city, which is about 50 percent white and 40 percent Black, has fallen on hard times. It’s out of the way if you’re coming from Atlanta, past several of those green stretches of the state’s interior where the American flags are bigger and the roadkill is more exotic. It’s also a place that just elected its first Black and first woman mayor, and Democrats think they’d be more competitive there — the city, like Houston County as a whole, tends to vote Republican — if they could just keep young people from leaving. “They finish high school and they don’t come back,” said Patrick.

“We weren’t investing inside of our city” for a while, she added, and that’s a big part of why Warnock came to showcase his record. His work passing the CHIPS and Science Act — which pays companies to research and make semiconductors — headlined his pitch to turn Middle Georgia into a technology center. “I want to see the young people in this city and this region know that they don’t have to go to the West Coast; they don’t have to go to Silicon Valley,” he said to a crowd of about 100 locals. Making those chips here instead of outsourcing to China, he explained, would help offset future supply-chain blockages like the ones that waylaid the auto industry during the pandemic. (The Kia plant two hours to the west is a big employer.)

But there’s a national-security angle, too — semiconductors are crucial to making America’s missile-defense systems work — and the focus on Warner Robins gets clearer the more you drive around. Robins Air Force Base is a visual marvel, a web of hulking brown hangars and planes large enough to hold other planes inside them. It’s also the biggest employer in the region, accounting for nearly 24,000 jobs. At 5 p.m. every weekday, “The Star-Spangled Banner” starts playing over the base’s loudspeakers, which are audible for several blocks in any direction. It happened during Warnock’s rally, and everyone in the audience stood and removed their hats. “Certain traditions are ingrained in you,” explained Patrick, whose father was in the Air Force.

Here was a senator playing a familiar game of pork-barrel politics in a state that employs more military personnel than all but four others. “For anyone who lives in Warner Robins, Houston County, or even Middle Georgia, the biggest fear is if something happens to Robins Air Force Base,” said Patrick. I asked several of Warnock’s allies and admirers if this seems like a compromise of values from a pastor who self-consciously modeled himself after one of the 20th century’s great critics of militarism, and they all gave a version of the same answer: “There is no compromise,” said Young.

We look back on the civil-rights movement as a moral vanguard, pushing ideas about justice and equality that had previously seemed unimaginable. Many of its luminaries and their descendants rode its momentum into the halls of power, ushering in a new age of Black rule and political relevance. It was almost dizzying in contrast to what came before it, and it was easy to overlook how narrow those halls were and how they have limited what is imaginable now.

There’s a studied inscrutability to Warnock’s forays into public life, making him easily reduced to an accumulation of credentials and accomplishments. But like the crisp robes and rimless glasses he’s been wearing since he was a neophyte pastor, the strictures of his new job are the same they’ve been for generations: People doing this work don’t usually expand it; it often shrinks them. When he chose to make Capitol Hill his ministry, it suggested that either he really believes the path to American salvation still runs through partisan politics and Congress, or acting like it does is the best we can hope for.

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The Future of Black Politics Is at Stake in Georgia