Senate newcomer Rev. Raphael Warnock an heir to MLK’s work

ATLANTA — When Senator-elect Reverend Raphael Warnock embarked on his Senate race, he did so as a continuation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s work. 

Warnock serves as senior pastor of the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King co-pastored from 1960 until his assassination in 1968.

On Friday, Warnock delivered a sermon at The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, as it hosted the 36th annual MLK Jr. Shabbat Service commemorating the rich history of Jewish and Christian communities’ shared fight for civil rights. There, for the 12th consecutive year, Warnock took to the pulpit to deliver a sermon to both congregations. 

This year, he did so as the victor in a runoff election that will make Warnock the first Black senator to represent Georgia. Also victorious was Senator-elect Jon Ossoff, who grew up attending the Temple where Rev. Warnock was speaking.

“The election is now over, and standing together you have the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King stood,” said Warnock during the service, “standing alongside a young Jewish man, the son of immigrants on our way to represent this state in the Senate.”

Warnock and Senator-elect Jon Ossoff’s political alliance in the runoff builds on the religious coalition of progress between the Jewish community and the Black Christian community that ran through Dr. King’s work in the Civil Rights Movement.

“[King’s] work was addressing the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism,” Rev. Warnock said. “But the full manifestation of his mission is left to us.”

The mission has long brought Jewish and Black Christian communities together, and the mission has sometimes had grave consequences. In 1958, The Temple was bombed. While no arrests were ever made, it was understood as an anti-Semitic and racist attack. Rabbi Rothschild, The Temple’s leader at the time, was committed to addressing inequities and stood by Dr. King and other Black clergy members in their fight for civil rights. 

Now, in 2021, The Temple may have been the victim of another racist and anti-Semitic attack. During Friday’s broadcast, the synagogue’s livestream of the service was interrupted for over an hour, with viewers unable to access the service on any of the other synagogue client sites across the country. While the motives and culprits of the cyberattack are not clear, leaders at the synagogue speculate that it directly responds to the message of the service and Warnock’s presence. 

“One thing I know as a former U.S. attorney is not to rush to judgment but you do take the facts as you see them,” The Temple President Kent Alexander said. “And so, all I can do is speculate and it appears that somebody was trying to interfere with this service because of racism or anti-Semitism or both.”

But just as Dr. King was undeterred by attacks, Warnock and the clergy of The Temple pushed through. 

At Sunday’s service at Ebenezer Baptist Church honoring Dr. King, Warnock shared a similar message, creating parallels between Dr. King’s work in the 1960s to the work communities continue today. Finding the commonality between King’s work in 1968 with Black sanitation workers in Memphis that led to the famous images of demonstrators holding the “I AM A MAN” signs and eventually, today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

“Poor people, marginalized people, have to say the obvious and have to have movements to argue for themselves that which ought to be automatically given to them,” Warnock said.

“There is equity in God’s vision,” Warnock declared, a sentiment that led his sermon through to its end. 

Warnock, a man intimately acquainted with the world’s inequities, aligned his Senate run with this very notion. As a Savannah native, he grew up in public housing with his 11 siblings. Both of his parents were pastors, though they struggled financially. He attended Morehouse College, one of the nation’s leading HBCUs and struggled to pay his tuition. Warnock credits these experiences for his understanding of what it truly means to be marginalized, he says. 

As Warnock closed Sunday’s service, he shared a striking allegory describing the power of geese flying in a V formation. In doing so, he pointed out that when the goose leading the V grows tired, it simply falls back further into the formation, giving way to a new leader who integrates itself seamlessly. 

“Geese understand that my individual location is not as important as our collective destination,” said Warnock, “and so that is why we have to stick together. We have to work together.”

This story is part of a reporting effort by The GroundTruth Project on voting rights in America, with support from the Jesse and Betsy Fink Charitable Fund, Solutions Journalism Network and MacArthur Foundation.