The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a pastor at the same Atlanta church where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, is the first Black person ever elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Georgia.
Warnock, 51, who defeated incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler in Tuesday’s runoff election, is also the first Black Democrat to represent a Southern state in the Senate.
“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," Warnock said in his virtual acceptance speech. “We were told that we couldn’t win this election. But tonight, we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible.”
The Savannah native grew up in publicly supported housing for low-income families. A graduate of Morehouse College, a private historically Black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, Warnock earned a doctor of philosophy degree from Union Theological Seminary, a school affiliated with Columbia University. He has spent the past 15 years as senior pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of King.
“Georgia is a state that has a long history of racist politics, dating back well into the 19th century, and for an African American man to be elected to the United States Senate from Georgia is a historic moment,” says James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.
More than 4 million Georgians voted in Tuesday’s runoff with the state’s two Senate seats at stake and majority control of the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance.
While Warnock defeated Loeffler, Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff defeated Republican Senator David Perdue — producing a 50-50 tie in the 100-seat Senate. With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris entitled to cast all tiebreaking votes once she takes office, the Democrats will be able to reclaim control of the Senate from the Republicans.
Georgia is a longtime Republican stronghold. In November, President-elect Joe Biden was the first Democrat to win in Georgia in 28 years.
Warnock ran a positive campaign focused on issues and was often seen smiling in political advertisements, despite attacks from Loeffler and other Republicans trying to characterize him as a “radical” and “socialist.”
“They weren't able to demonize him because he was just so likable,” says political strategist Fred Hicks. “The fact that he is the pastor at Dr. King's church is a subconscious reminder to people that he's really a bridge from the civil rights generation to this current generation.”
Where it began
Political scientist Andra Gilespie of Emory University says the road to a statewide victory for a Black candidate in Georgia might have started with Democrat Stacy Abrams’ narrow loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 race for governor. Abrams won more votes than any other Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia history.
“African American candidates have been discouraged from running because the perception was that Democrats were so disadvantaged that you didn't want to compound that with the additional racial disadvantage,” Gilespie says.
“And what Black candidates like Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock show is that, while Black candidates certainly face different types of attacks and challenges because of their race, that doesn't necessarily translate into them getting fewer votes. And instead, they can outperform some of their white Democratic counterparts,” she adds.
Abrams and other activists spearheaded an effort to organize and register more people of color while also launching legal attacks on voter suppression. Georgia is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. Its population grew by more than 100,000 between 2018 and 2019. This ever-growing populace includes liberal white people and voters of color.
"It tells you something about the power of organizing and human agency,” Grossman says. “This is not just that the population changed. ... If you organize, if you get out and vote, you can make things happen. This shows that people can make change.”
Warnock is the 11th African American to serve in the Senate and could face special challenges as a person of color holding one of the nation’s highest offices.
“He’ll have to live up to the legacy of people like Barack Obama, who served in the Senate,” says political strategist Hicks. “I think that also means a lot of pressures once a Black person is elected to the Senate. Whether it's Barack Obama or Kamala Harris, people automatically peg you for the next big step — that is president.”
One year, then another election
Warnock will likely focus less on national expectations and more on keeping his Senate seat. Because he triumphed in a special election, Warnock will be up for reelection next year. Consequently, the campaign to retain the seat he just won has already begun.
A Senate controlled by Democrats could help Warnock establish a solid record to run on.
“Raphael Warnock, understanding that he has an election next year, will have the opportunity, I believe, to author and pass legislation that will help him with his reelection and really advance the causes of people of color,” Hicks says.
VOA’s Jesusemen Oni contributed to this report.