Warnock makes history as first black senator from Georgia

In a victory speech after being elected as a US senator for Georgia, Raphael Warnock invoked his elderly mother, who worked as a sharecropper when she was a teenager.

“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,” Mr Warnock told supporters in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

“I come before you tonight 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.”

Mr Warnock’s victory at the age of 51 marks a series of firsts: he is the first black senator from Georgia and the first Democratic black senator from the Deep South. As the 11th black senator in US history, he will take his seat alongside just two other African-Americans in the upper chamber of Congress.

It is a major achievement for a man who grew up as the 11th of 12 children in public housing in Savannah, Georgia, before following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr by preaching at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

His victory will be celebrated by black voters beyond Georgia, and comes after a year that was marked by a fresh push for racial justice triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last May.

LaTosha Brown, Black Voters Matter co-founder © John Bazemore/AP
Stacey Abrams, voting rights activist © Carolyn Kaster/AP

“We are in the cradle of the civil rights movement,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, an Atlanta-based activist group that registered and mobilised black voters ahead of the election.

“We are in the midst of a social movement that is happening,” said Ms Brown. “Just because you don’t see the marches happening in the streets . . . that work and that sentiment still is out here.”

For Georgia Democrats, the win is bittersweet, as it comes after the passing of longtime local congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis last summer at the age of 80. Mr Warnock, Lewis’s pastor, presided over the funeral.

Mr Warnock joins several other black political leaders in the South who have been credited with delivering the presidency to Joe Biden, and putting his party within touching distance of controlling the US Senate.

Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic state legislator who narrowly lost Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election to Republican Brian Kemp, has been lauded for mobilising black voters, who make up around one-third of the state’s electorate.

Her work led to the registration of hundreds of thousands of voters, many of them African-American, helping Mr Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in almost three decades.

Jim Clyburn’s endorsement of Joe Biden during the Democratic primary was seen as a pivotal moment that would end up propelling him to the White House. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Mr Warnock and Ms Abrams share a mantle with Jim Clyburn, the longtime Democratic black congressman from neighbouring South Carolina. Mr Clyburn’s endorsement of Mr Biden during last year’s Democratic primary, when he was trailing rivals, was seen as a pivotal moment in his campaign.

Mr Biden has acknowledged the debt of gratitude he owes to Mr Clyburn, Ms Abrams, and black voters. “When this campaign was at its lowest, the African-American community stood up for me,” he said in his victory speech after being declared the winner of the presidency. “They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.”

On Wednesday morning, Mr Biden again thanked Ms Abrams, along with Keisha Lance Bottoms, the African-American mayor of Atlanta, for their efforts on behalf of Democrats in the state.

“I congratulate the twin powers of Georgia, Stacey Abrams and Keisha Lance Bottoms, who have laid the difficult groundwork necessary to encourage turnout and protect the vote over these last years,” he said.

Now the president-elect must deliver for the constituency that proved so crucial to his ascent to power. Black political activists are likely to renew on their demands for him to address issues ranging from criminal justice reform to voting rights.

Ms Brown of Black Votes Matter said Tuesday’s results underscored the importance of grassroots organising for Democrats, particularly in underserved black communities.

“Even though it is a fraction of the billion dollars that has been spent on television ads, we have seen more investment happening on the ground to support all of the organising work,” she said. “I certainly think that has made the difference.”

© Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg

The historical significance of Tuesday’s vote was not lost on voters in Mr Warnock’s hometown of Savannah on polling day.

“What I saw growing up in Savannah was that we were on the back burner. This is a long time coming,” said Lamont Sanders, a 44-year-old black voter, as he waited to cast his ballot. “Change is happening. There was such a sense of happiness in the voting line this morning.” 

His comments were echoed by Shemike Simmons, who volunteered for Black Voters Matter. “I never would have thought that Georgia would have turned blue and then be the deciding factor for the Senate,” she said.

“You know what I say? ‘Run peach, run,’” she said, referring to Georgia’s nickname as the “Peach State”.

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Mr Clyburn, said voters of colour were inspired by the possibility of having a black senator on Capitol Hill.

“It is one thing to have someone who says they understand the issues, but it is another thing to have someone who looks like you, who comes from your set of experiences,” he said before Mr Warnock’s victory.

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