The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black senator from Georgia

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the projected winner of a Senate runoff election in Georgia, will be the first Black senator in the state’s history. (Kevin D. Liles for the Washington Post)
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In early September 1868, two months after Georgia’s readmission to the Union, its state legislature expelled almost 30 of its newly elected Black members instead of seating them. Not long afterward, one of the banished members, a man named Philip Joiner, led several hundred Black people and a few White people on a 25-mile march from Albany to Camilla for a political rally. Along the way hundreds of armed White people, led by a local sheriff, opened fire on the parade, killing about a dozen marchers. Joiner and others fled into the woods.

On a January evening 152 years later and about 100 miles to the northwest, the Rev. Ralph Huling retreated to his “man cave” — Atlanta Falcons rug, exercise equipment, putting green — and turned on his television to see whether Georgia would elect its first Black senator.

It was a culminating moment not just in Georgia’s history but for Huling his fellow ministers and congregants of Black churches in Georgia. During the campaign Huling, senior pastor of St. James Missionary Baptist, in Columbus, had invited the Democratic candidate, the Rev. Raphael Warnock — a fellow Black minister, of Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta — to speak at his church. He had been on the phone all of Election Day, organizing transportation for voters and firing up his members to get out and vote.

Now, there was nothing left to do but wait and watch. And pray.

Lord, the people are depending on You. We’ve done the work. But now, we realize that [President] Trump couldn’t make America great again. We need help if America is going to be what it’s going to be, not only for African Americans but there are poor people of all ethnicities, that need help from the federal government in such a time as this.

The federal government interceded in 1870, two years after the attack, to make Georgia seat its Black representatives, but that was hardly a solution. Black state legislators faced intimidation and violence, and by the early 1900s Georgia has succeeded in disenfranchising its Black citizens so thoroughly that no Black representative made it back to the legislature for more than half a century.

Through all the strife, the Black church remained central in Black life. During slavery, preaching was the only white-collar trade available for Black people. It was illegal for Black people to even read, but through oratory in the pulpit they could distinguish themselves. Shunned from White churches and of other aspects of American society, the Black church was one of the few institutions in which African Americans were allowed to flourish and gain social status.

And as churches became more central to Black life, ministers became multifaceted, leading W.E.B. Du Bois to declare that “The preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil,” a man who “found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people.”

In the wake of the civil rights movement, religious scholars and churchgoers have noted the “decline” of the Christian church as the central institution in Black America. One observer went so far as to declare the Black church “dead.”

Those origins and circumstances led to a fierce protectiveness. “It’s something we’ve held onto and we figured if nothing else it was ours,” says Huling. “This institution belongs to us and so we have to protect it.”

During the Warnock campaign, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, his Republican opponent, and her allies had pointed to clips from Warnock’s old sermons and called him a “radical” — an approach that Huling and many of his fellow religious leaders took as an attack on the faith traditions of the Black church, which had focused on the need for racial justice. Huling had also been peeved by Trump’s attacks on Stacey Abrams, the Democratic organizer who had led a surge of voter registrations in Georgia.

“That was enough to provoke us to get on the phone and call people and remind them if they haven’t voted, get out and vote,” he says.

Raphael Warnock’s campaign for the moral high ground

Those votes were now being counted, and Warnock was showing strong numbers. Jon Ossoff, a White, Jewish Democrat running for Georgia’s other Senate seat, was also holding his own. Sitting on a cream-colored leather chair in his man cave, Huling exchanged anxious text from his fellow pastors in Georgia — and others as far away as Michigan and Virginia, he says. Their collective mood was apprehensive, but they leaned on each other through prayer.

God, we just ask for intervention to end this. If You would send Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock to be able to aid president-elect Biden and vice president-elect Kamala D. Harris so that we can finally unlock the gridlock that's been happening in our nation's capital.

When Georgians elected John Lewis to Congress in 1986, it was only the second time they’d sent a Black representative to Congress since Reconstruction. At one point during the night, Huling texted a meme of Lewis, who died last year, that included the words “Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Never lose that sense of hope.”

As he flipped through he flipped through MSNBC, CNN and ABC, relief washed over him when the race was called.

His phone kept lighting up.

“Oh my goodness, there were expressions of jubilation,” Huling says.

After midnight, Warnock appeared on screen, sitting in front of a shelf displaying plants, photos and copy of former president Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” to declare victory.

“Weeping may endure for a night,” the presumptive senator-elect said, quoting a popular psalm among Black churchgoers, “but joy cometh in the morning.”