Reverend Warnock, Stacey Abrams, and the Promise of an Energized Black Electorate

by WLALA Board Member Ariella T. Simonds

February 2021

On January 5, 2021, Reverend Raphael Warnock became the eleventh Black senator in our country’s history and only the second Black senator sent to Congress from the South since Reconstruction.  His election reminds us simultaneously of the myriad accomplishments of Black Americans that led to this moment, as well as the many obstacles that have been thrown in the path of those Americans and that have delayed the march toward justice for far too long. 

Reverend Warnock’s own path to this moment is emblematic of those challenges and the tenacity—both personal and communal—required to overcome them.  Reverend Warnock has frequently drawn a contrast between his current position and his humble childhood, growing up as the eleventh of twelve children in a family that struggled financially.  His journey from public housing to the United States Senate is a testament to his hard work and talents; he graduated cum laude from Morehouse College, was ordained as a minister, earned a Master of Philosophy degree and PhD in systematic theology, and, at the age of 35, became the youngest ever senior pastor at the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  But one can—and he does—also trace his accomplishments back to the hard work and guidance of his parents (both blue-collar workers and Pentecostal pastors), as well as the Black activists who came before him.  Those activists include Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Reverend Warnock idolized as a young pastor and who once also served as a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Congressman John Lewis, a congregant of Reverend Warnock. 

As Reverend Warnock related during his eulogy of John Lewis, the congressman, too, had once considered becoming a pastor.  But, Reverend Warnock said, “instead of preaching sermons, he became one.  He became a living, walking sermon about truth-telling and justice-making in the Earth.  He loved America until America learned how to love him back.”  Reverend Warnock’s senate campaign had echoes of that same storyline.  

In broad terms, Reverend Warnock’s campaign was about a universal fight for justice and equality.  His platform featured commitments to criminal justice reform, expanded access to healthcare, and economic policies that serve the underprivileged as much as the uber-privileged.  Nevertheless, his political detractors tried their level best to portray him as a radical—a transparent strategy that played on racism and xenophobia.  His opponent, appointed Senator Kelly Loeffler, dubbed him a “Marxist radical” and ran an attack ad that featured Reverend Warnock with digitally darkened skin.  In the same vein, former President Trump described him as “the most radical and dangerous left-wing candidate ever to seek this office,” adding ominously, “and he does not have your values.”  The play was clear and familiar: weaponize his blackness against him, capitalize on his “otherness” to sow fear and distrust.  In the end, though, no amount of vitriol was enough to defeat the enthusiasm around Reverend Warnock’s campaign.  And, it is critical to note,  Reverend Warnock’s popularity among Black Georgians was in large part the very thing that drove his campaign to victory.

Black Georgians made up approximately 32% of voters in the January runoff and supported Reverend Warnock at a rate of approximately 93%.  Political observers marveled at the voter turnout, noting that while turnout is typically anemic in special elections, with approximately 4.5 million votes cast, the turnout rate for the senate runoff was higher than in the 2016 presidential election.  Remarkable as they are, what those numbers don’t capture is just how much perseverance was required of Black voters to cast their votes for Reverend Warnock.  At polls in predominantly Black counties, voters faced criminally long lines.  And the long waits were more than an inconvenience; in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, congregating at polling sites meant risking a potentially lethal virus that has plagued Black communities at greater rates and with worse outcomes than non-Black Americans.  (In Georgia, more than 80% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 have been Black.)  Of course, long lines are only one example of the numerous barriers that characterize the voting-while-black experience in America.  Nevertheless, Black Georgians knew what was at stake and persevered. 

Without a doubt, Reverend Warnock’s historic victory would not have been possible without the unwavering efforts of Black voters and organizers—and none more so than Stacey Abrams.  Stated plainly, Stacey Abrams is a political force.  Despite having not (yet) achieved higher office than the Georgia state legislature, there are few in politics with more influence, credibility and promise than Ms. Abrams.  It was during her 2018 bid for Georgia governor that many Americans outside of Georgia came to know Ms. Abrams, but her star was on the rise long before that.  She was elected to the Georgia state legislature in 2006 and only five years later she became the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first Black leader in its House of Representatives.  It was in that role that she successfully worked to blunt the impact of the state Republican party’s redistricting efforts.  She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates and used those funds to mobilize voters through neighborhood canvassing and grassroots volunteer networks.  Against all odds, four Democrats whose seats were redistricted nevertheless won their reelection campaigns.  As described by Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ former campaign manager: “It was a really big deal that the Republicans didn’t get the supermajority they had drawn for themselves.” 

That was only the beginning of Ms. Abrams’s herculean efforts to register and mobilize voters, especially Black voters, in Georgia.  In 2013, months after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act for Southern states with histories of racially discriminatory voter suppression efforts, Ms. Abrams founded the New Georgia Project with the goal of registering and mobilizing young voters and voters of color.  Then, only days after losing her bid for Governor of Georgia by just 55,000 votes—the closest race for that state’s governorship in more than 50 years and one characterized by the very kind of voter suppression tactics the preclearance provisions were meant to prevent—she founded Fair Fight Action aimed at countering voter suppression through litigation, legislation and grassroots activism. 

Ms. Abrams has not been shy about her presidential ambitions.  In January 2020, she predicted she would be president of the United States within 20 years.  On the other hand, she didn’t let her political ambitions blind her to the work needed to make that political future, and the political successes of other Black politicians, possible.  Declining to run for either of the Georgia senate seats in 2020 or in the Democratic presidential primary, she remained laser-focused on her efforts to increase voter registration and voter participation in her home state.  The success of New Georgia Project has been staggering—according to their website, as of September 2019, the organization had registered nearly half a million Georgians.  Voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election was more than 74% in Georgia (up from only 40% in 2016) and in the special election, where turnout is almost always dramatically lower, voter turnout was nearly 90% of the stunning general election numbers. 

It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that Reverend Warnock stands not only on the shoulders of Dr. King, Congressman Lewis and other late, great men and women, but was also carried to victory by the indomitable Stacey Abrams and the grassroots movement she has cultivated in Georgia over the last fifteen years.  Among other lessons of Reverend Warnock’s victory is a reminder of what can be achieved when Black voters make their voices heard.  In November 2020 and January 2021, Black voters were largely responsible for major political shifts in the White House and Senate.  In the wake of those elections, it finally feels promising to imagine what can be achieved with more work—not just by Stacey Abrams but by all of us.