'Another Milestone in the Long, Long Road.' Rev. Raphael Warnock's Georgia Senate Victory Made History in Multiple WaysHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Georgia, US Senate, Raphael Warnock
Rev. Raphael Warnock’s victory on Wednesday over incumbent Republican Georgia U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler in a runoff election made history in more than one way. He became the first Black U.S. Senator elected from Georgia, the first Black Democratic U.S. Senator elected in the South and, when he’s sworn in, he’ll become only the 11th Black senator elected in U.S. history.
Warnock is one of 12 children, who grew up in a Savannah housing project. He went on to get a PhD and follow in Martin Luther King’s footsteps as a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. In a speech shortly after midnight on Wednesday, he discussed the historic moment his election represented by talking about what it meant for his mother to vote for him on Tuesday. He noted, “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.” In fact, historian and author of The False Cause Adam Domby pointed out to TIME that Warnock’s seat was formerly held by John B. Gordon, a Confederate general who was also believed to have led the Georgia branch of the Ku Klux Klan.
Andrew Young, former Georgia Congressman and one of the most prominent activists in the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement that pushed for the Voting Rights Act, called Warnock’s Senate win “another milestone in the long, long road.”
“We always said that freedom is a constant struggle,” the 88-year-old tells TIME by phone from his home in Atlanta (a day after getting his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine). When he took office in 1973, Young became Georgia’s first Black congressman in more than a century. “We’ve been making progress slowly, but this is clearly one of the biggest steps.”
While Warnock’s win is historic, it’s also an important moment to learn from history. Such gains towards representation have been followed by devastating losses and setbacks from those who resent such progress. After all, following the first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate in the 1870s and 1880s, it wouldn’t be until 1967 that another African American would be elected.
“The fact is that it’s taken this long to witness another [election of a Black U.S. senator] really demonstrates how deeply entrenched white supremacy has been in the electoral process in this country and the lengths that Black people, especially in the South, have had to go to overcome that is nothing short of heroic,” says Kali Nicole Gross, professor of African American Studies at Emory University and co-author of A Black Women’s History of the United States.
“The Reconstruction era was the first time that en masse Black men had the right to vote,” says Carol Anderson, chair of African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta and author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.
But over the next century, states worked around the 15th Amendment by passing laws on voting requirements that didn’t mention race, but were enforced unequally, and minorities were more subjected to them than white people registering to vote. Black voters faced violence and intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan. And a compromise that gave the 1876 presidential election to Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops designed to enforce Reconstruction laws ensuring Black citizenship rights, essentially paving the way for Jim Crow segregation laws.
Prior to the mid-1960s, “In states like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, you would have single digit percentages of African Americans registered to vote and counties that were overwhelmingly Black with zero number of African Americans registered to vote because of the terror and the disenfranchising policies put in place, like poll taxes and literacy tests,” says Anderson. “When you really think about American democracy, we didn’t really get close to it until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.“