Senator Raphael Warnock Is Running for the Soul of Georgia

Raphael Warnock understands himself as a man born of a mighty lineage that he regards a “moral tradition.” He begins with his father, a self-taught metal worker, collecting cast-off vehicles, disassembling them, and selling them for parts. Recalling his father’s ingenuity, the Senator’s voice soars with an emotion that is easily recognized as awe, tinged with great respect. “He would create these mechanisms. The thing would be drawn on paper by him and he’d think it over. He was putting these things together to load up these old junk cars … To take care of his family. A way out of no way.”

Warnock is a self-conscious follower of the African American men who have changed America. He often quips that although he was born the year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, it was King himself who recruited Warnock to Morehouse College, a historically Black men’s college from which he would graduate in 1991. Shortly after Warnock’s 2021 Senate victory, he mentioned this on a congratulatory Zoom call with about 100 of his former classmates. This declaration received some funny ribbing. Had they not all been drawn to Morehouse by the college’s most illustrious alumnus? Warnock’s affinity with Warnock was different. His older sister Joyce Coleman Hall recalls that her younger brother began reciting King’s sermons when he was only 5 or 6 years old: “He quoted them with such sincerity, with weight in his voice. Waving his little hands.”

In 1974, the Warnock family celebrates Michael’s birthday, sitting on Verlene Warnock’s lap. The future senator Warnock is pictured in the bottom left corner trying to mimic his elder brother’s pose, while Jonathan, his father, smiles at camera

Thanks to Senator Raphael Warnock

Warnock’s life story is somehow sepia and Technicolor at once. His parents are working class in Savannah, Ga. He’s the 11th of their children. Although the number 11 gives off an ethereal vibe, it is hard to believe that there are so many children. It seems like this number evokes an older time in South. However, this is a contemporary story. Theirs is a mixed family. He was raised by his Pentecostal mother and father. His mother had six children when his parents were married and his father had four. Raphael, his youngest sibling, were welcomed to their home by them. “We’re like the Brady Bunch,” says Warnock, “but we needed twice as many squares.”

He shared his room as a child with Keith, his brother, who was a war veteran and a cop officer. Keith was arrested in 1997 along with eleven other officers for conspiring to sell drug. These were severe and swift consequences.

“This was a nonviolent drug offense,” said Warnock. “My brother was a first-time offender. Keith’s crime was public corruption. It was betrayal against the public trust. It is understandable. There were no injuries. There were no drugs anywhere. It was impossible to find drugs anywhere. For this, my brother was sentenced. There was no possibility of parole. You can’t sentence a human being to more years than life. He was 33 years old.” Keith was released in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Black men are often told that they will either be carried or judged by twelve. Both these reality were realities Warnock had to confront. Warnock traveled to prison after preaching at Rayshard’s funeral, an unarmed Black Atlanta man killed by police. “It’s a context for understanding who I am,” Warnock explains. “And how different my own life could have been. My brother was in the lowest bunk and my sister was in the highest. I’m acutely aware of how close my life as a Black man could have been to a different path. All it takes it being pulled over, and you could end up dead.”

You could even become a Senator of the United States.

For generations, the Warnock family believed their youngest son was destined to be great, despite being loved and cared for by all his siblings. Hall remembers the day she was 12, and Raphael, who was 7 months old at that time. “Two of the women at our church came by and told my mother to bring the baby … Those women laid hands on my brother, and they said that he would be a voice to the nation and that God’s hands were on his life and favor would be upon him.”

Warnock as a young minister in his early years

Thanks to Senator Raphael Warnock

We are gathered on the veranda of the Morehouse president’s grand home for a reception following graduation in May, where Warnock has just delivered the commencement address and received an honorary degree. The well-dressed crowd has accessorized to indicate their various affiliations—alumni pins, silk scarves in sorority colors, panama hats signaling graduation years. Kids, clad in their Sunday best, drink fruit punch carelessly, as the grown folks hum along with R&B oldies, queueing for the carving stations and -paella bar. Hall smiles as he observes that Hall is referring to the prophecy being fulfilled by this scene and its occasion.

Warnock doesn’t speak of himself in such lofty terms. Instead, he demonstrates humility, joking with the graduating class that he arrived at college penniless as his father quoted Acts 3:6: “‘Silver and gold, I have none.’” Warnock remembers lamenting to the dean of the chapel that “I don’t have but one suit.” He recalls the other students driving “fine cars.” He delivers this memory with the wry amusement of remembering his childish preoccupations.

As I sit there, I’m reminded of Warnock speaking for the first time. We were all college freshmen. It was 1987. I was a student at Spelman College, the historically Black women’s college that is so close to Morehouse that the schools share a parking lot. Warnock was chosen to represent his class, and delivered an address in what I always think of as the Morehouse manner—-passionate, syncopated, and polysyllabic. Do you think we all knew that Warnock was going to be a prominent figure? With an asterisk. Spelman and Morehouse believed everyone would make a positive difference.

His story is a joy to read. His new memoir, The Way Out of No WayThis is a story of perseverance, family, faith and planning. Warnock, who describes himself as a “Head Start alumnus,” benefited from Upward Bound, a government program designed to support low-income children and prepare them for academic success in higher education. In the Senator today, you have to squint to see the little boy who learned his ABCs in the “early bird” pre-K program. After witnessing his Easter sermon, I teased him about his immaculate pulpit style—a gorgeous gray suit, lime green tie, and pocket square. His tone is light but powerful, and he fits right in with the sunlit sanctuary. When it’s time for the altar call welcoming those in the pews to formally join the church, he smiles, extending a hand.

Warnock followed Dr. King to Morehouse, which turned out to be just Warnock’s first step on a journey that situated him on the path of the great American theologians of the 20th century. Although he was accepted to Harvard Divinity School, he instead earned his Ph.D. at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, a hub of progressive theology. While there, he secured a post as assistant pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church, a storied church in Harlem helmed by Adam Clayton Powell Sr. before Powell passed the pulpit to Adam Clayton Powell Jr.—the first Black person to represent New York in Congress.

Warnock was intrigued when he heard that Ebenezer Baptist Church was seeking a new pastor in Atlanta in 2005. This wasn’t your ordinary church. Martin Luther King Jr. was its pastor. His father had also been there. Ebenezer was shorthand for the moral, religious and spiritual authority that steered up MLK Jr. as well as the civil rights movement. Warnock was just 35 when he decided to put his hand up for the challenge. His success seemed almost inevitable.

This may be the advantage of hindsight.


Warnock began 2020As he entered politics, he was in for the fight of a lifetime. The media did not forget that he was Black running for Senate in Georgia. He ran on a ballot that featured Joe Biden as well as Donald Trump. The Northern tradition of making America’s South the victim of American racism was a part of the reason for this. There have only been 11 Black senators elected to the Senate. This would have made it significant for any seat, however, the South’s racial baggage was more exciting. Kelly Loeffler his opponent was rich and blonde but extremely unpopular. While she was the co-owner of the WNBA team the Atlanta Dream, she denounced the league’s support for Black Lives Matter. The Dream’s players and others made news by sporting T-shirts reading vote warnock.

One of many interesting details in the 2020 election was that there were 2 Senate seats available for sale. As Warnock worked to win Loeffler’s seat, now 35-year-old Jon Ossoff challenged legacy Georgia Republican David Perdue. Ossoff did not mince words. In an October debate just days before the general election, he proclaimed, “It’s not just that you’re a crook, Senator.” After that blistering debate defeat, Perdue withdrew from all other matches, so Ossoff took to the stage and interrogated Perdue’s empty podium.

But Warnock couldn’t fight Loeffler’s aggression with the same. Although she was unpopular, he was still Black and she was a White woman. He responded to her harsh criticisms with campaign ads which managed to both be humorous and sharp at the same. The most popular featured a -wholesome-looking Warnock walking a beagle, appearing puzzled by his opponent’s ire. The final act saw him throw a bag of dog urine into a garbage can. Metaphor, anyone?

Warnock talks to his supporters Jan. 5, 2021 in Marietta, Ga

Sandy Huffaker—AFP/Getty Images

The race was called Jan. 5, 2021. Georgia voters sent the two Republican Senators home and replaced them with Warnock and Ossoff—of whom “Black” and “Jewish” (respectively) were spoken so frequently, they almost seemed to be extensions of their names. Cars honked in joy as they drove through my Atlanta neighborhood. “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang blasted as if it were cookout season. Georgia was the official capital of the South, and is home to Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial. It’s the largest relief statue in the world. Unfortunately, the jubilee was only temporary. A right-wing mob attacked the U.S. Capitol the next day. The building was destroyed, legislators were terrorized and police officers beat. Several people were also injured or killed and a noose was put in place.

It suddenly seemed naive to us that we were literally dancing on the streets.

Even though it has been more than one year since the event, many of us are still haunted by those horrible days. We watched Joe Biden’s Inauguration with great anticipation, hoping for peace and quiet. The stars of that day were young poet Amanda Gorman, and perhaps Lady Gaga’s brooch; but also on that afternoon, Warnock and Ossoff took the oath of office, making official that Georgia, formerly blood-red, was now purple.

Warnock jokes that he is the most junior member of the Senate, behind even the younger Ossoff, “Because my last name begins with W.” Still, Warnock has made some moves in his short tenure, reaching across the aisle to introduce the Cruz–Warnock amendment for interstate-highway funding as part of the infrastructure package And yet, admittedly, as power lies with the coalition in an evenly divided Senate, it is difficult to determine the impact of a single Senator.

The nation’s attention is riveted by Jan. 6, hearingsWarnock has resigned. He faces Herschel Walker this time, an ex-football player, Heisman Trophy winner and Donald Trump endorsee.
Get to know a fellow African American.

Reporter Warnock after receiving the draft Supreme Court opinion leaked to the public

Michael A. McCoy—REUTERS

Andra, a Emory University political science professor, pointed out that this Senate race does not mark the first appearance of a Black Democrat as well as a Black Republican. It will, in fact, not be the only one. This, she argues, “reflects the ideological diversity of Black America … There has always been a contingent of Black Republicans. And they are becoming more visible as officeholders and nominees.”

Nevertheless, Walker is an eyebrow–raising choice. The AP reports that an extensive review of public records reveals “accusations that Walker repeatedly threatened his ex-wife’s life, exaggerated claims of financial success, and alarmed business associates with unpredictable behavior.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow positions Walker’s nomination as “part of a callous racial calculus, one in which Trump is well-trained . .. To many in the GOP, his race blunts the idea that Republicans are appealing to racists.” In light of this, many regard Walker’s candidacy as a cynical effort by Republicans to shake the label of being the party of bigotry.

In Warnock’s view, this too is the legacy of King. “Because since King, people have to at least show some sense of being embarrassed about racism. And on the flip side of that, it became difficult … People push back so hard, when things are named as racism, even when they are obviously racist.”

Toni Morrison famously declared, “The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” Warnock seems determined to avoid this trap, remaining focused on the issues that matter to him. He is currently working on a campaign to keep monthly insulin prices under $35. “People are out here rationing care,” he says. To preserve farmers’ traditions and lifestyles, he is working to assist them. It is important to remember that Ketanji brown Jackson was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. On this occasion, he was moved to write a note to his 5-year-old daughter: Judge Jackson “looks like you and has hair like yours.” These matters motivate the Senator.

But it’s the people of his state who have captured the attention of the nation. Between Marjorie Taylor Greene’s conspiracies, Barry Loudermilk’s mysterious Capitol tours on the eve of the Jan. 6 insurrection, and now Herschel Walker’s wild ideas, the Peach State is emblematic of MAGA incorrigibility. We are also the place where Stacey Abrams (now a two-time Democratic candidate) and John Lewis (the civil rights icon who died in 2020), now reside. Georgia is back at the forefront of justice-seeking in a divided nation.

Warnock meets Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and others at Ebenezer Baptist church on January 11.

Doug Mills—The New York Times/REDUX

Yet again, Ebenezer Baptist Church’s pastor was interviewed.He has spoken up on the national scene. At Paschal’s restaurant in Atlanta, Warnock hesitates over the menu. The fried chicken is a favorite of King and his movement followers. Warnock, considering the baked chicken, points out that “King didn’t live to see 40. He never had to watch his diet.”

This leads us to a discussion about how Warnock’s own path diverges from that of his spiritual mentor. “I never saw myself as someone trying to do exactly what [King] did. He is a symbol of a long tradition. There are many others. But
I think King was rightfully suspicious of politics … He was rightfully concerned about what happens to your moral voice if you actually run. And it is something that I think about …In my heart of hearts, I am still a preacher.”

When he says he is “still a preacher,” he is not merely referring to his temperament. Warnock gives sermons at the -Ebenezer on Sunday mornings and then takes an early morning flight to D.C. Mondays. On Mother’s Day, his address was titled “A Mother Trying to Make It,” in which he engaged the question of Roe v. Wade He insisted on the fact that anti-abortion does not mean you are pro-life. He discussed a range of issues that illustrated the breadth of the impact of women’s reproductive health and freedom. He preached about other issues that should fall under the heading of being “pro-life,” including criminal–justice reform, maternal mortality, and Medicaid reform. While some may argue that these issues are not policy, Warnock feels they should be addressed from the pulpit. “I never see [policy and morality]As different things. Never have, never will.”

With what is perhaps a rhetorical nod to King’s non-violence, Warnock does not engage his opponents with vitriol. When asked about Greene, he firmly, factually, and diplomatically points out that “racial and partisan gerrymandering will produce extremists.” His affect is a dignified stance, going high when they go low, à la Michelle Obama. Walker’s opponent is always being criticized for his gaffes. Warnock refuses to take this bait. Warnock doesn’t take the bait. In an ad, his character portrays himself as a weak athlete. However, this is not what happens on the football field.

This approach may prove to be just as successful against Walker than it was against Loeffler. The world looks very different from it did on January 5, 2021. The Jan. 6 committee hearings are reminding us the difference that only one day can make in the future of a centuries–old democracy. The election of Warnock and Ossoff, and the attendant shift of power in the Senate, triggered a backlash tsunami of “election-integrity” laws unchecked because of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. These laws, critics say, will disproportionately keep constituents of color, who are Warnock’s base, from voting.

Warnock stands before the congregation at Ebenezer’s Sunday Service, May 8

Wayne Lawrence, TIME

As the hearings of Jan. 6 have shown, radical voices within government have also radicalized citizens. Warnock is concerned that because of gerrymandering, “These extreme personalities emerge … so they don’t reflect what it’s actually like. It’s like holding a magnifying glass.” When he says this, he means that the magnifying glass distorts and enlarges, but there is another way to read this metaphor. When held under the sun at the perfect angle, a magnifying lens can ignite a flame.

The November election is the main issue, but there are other questions. The ballot box will be the final straw in putting out the fires that are threatening the survival of democracy. Is it possible for a reverend to chart a route that leads him to victory, even in an age full of violence and rage political?

His identities of Senator Warnock, Reverend Warnock and Reverend Warnock are so closely intertwined that it is difficult to determine which duty is overridden. “So maybe because I am a preacher and I theorize about the complex nature of human beings. They are flawed but there is still glory. While democracy will grow, there will also be times when it shrinks. Even contractions are essential for the birth process. So I keep moving, and maybe it’s because I am a Baptist preacher who preaches every Sunday.”

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