The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sen. Warnock recounts his path from the projects to Georgia politics

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) on Capitol Hill last month. “We are the latest generation that gets to decide whether we’re going to give in to bigotry and fear or push closer to our democratic ideals,” he writes in his new memoir. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A few years after becoming senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Raphael Warnock invited a congregant to lunch. He had a pressing question for the older church member, someone he was hoping to get to know better.

“I’m thinking about running for office,” Warnock said. Then he asked his lunch guest to be his mentor.

“Oh, you don’t need it,” replied Rep. John Lewis. Warnock had cherished Lewis, the iconic civil rights figure, as his hero ever since he met him briefly while studying at Morehouse College. Years later, the two men worked closely together on voting rights initiatives. When Lewis died in July 2020, Warnock officiated at his funeral.

And Warnock, like Lewis, succeeded brilliantly in politics. Almost 18 months ago, he took office as Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator. Warnock has played a key role in changing the trajectory of Georgia politics, working with other activists like Stacey Abrams to register hundreds of thousands of voters, including many people of color. In late 2020 and early 2021, the nation watched spellbound as the state’s “new multiracial electoral majority” turned Georgia’s political landscape from red to deep purple and sent Warnock and another Democrat, Jon Ossoff, to the Senate, flipping control of the chamber. Warnock, who won his seat in a special election, is running for a full term this fall. Abrams is making her second bid for Georgia governor in November.

Warnock recounts his lunch with Lewis — and Georgia’s stunning political and social transformation — in his new book, “A Way Out of No Way: A Memoir of Truth, Transformation, and the New American Story.”

Warnock’s story is indeed the new American story. Only this time, Horatio Alger hails from the projects.

The 11th of 12 children of Pentecostal preachers, Warnock grew up in the Herbert Kayton Homes public-housing project in Savannah, Ga., and was the first in his family to graduate from college. He joined a long line of esteemed Morehouse alumni including filmmaker Spike Lee, Georgia state Sen. Julian Bond and Martin Luther King Jr., and took pride in his distinction as “a Morehouse man” after graduating from the historically Black men’s college.

Warnock’s American tale takes us from a housing project to Ebenezer Baptist, once King’s home pulpit, and now the halls of Congress.

Warnock had plenty of mentors who helped him find his “way out of no way.” His path was lined with influential ministers and civil rights leaders who offered advice and encouragement during his days at Morehouse and through his appointments at four of America’s most prestigious Black churches: Sixth Avenue Baptist Church of Birmingham, Ala., Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, Douglas Memorial Community Church of Baltimore and Ebenezer. Warnock is only the fifth pastor in Ebenezer’s 136-year history and the first one who was not a member of the King family. His memoir reads like a Who’s Who of Black America.

The book opens with a riveting account of the life sentence handed down in 1997 to Warnock’s older half brother. Keith, a rookie Savannah police officer, Warnock writes, had been “charged with aiding and abetting the distribution of cocaine by providing security for drug dealers”; he was one of 11 officers implicated in an FBI sting. Warnock was shocked. Keith was his “stocky, clean-cut older brother, the high school football player” who “proudly enlisted in the U.S. Army right out of high school.” His arrest confused Warnock. “Had we missed something,” he wondered.

When Warnock dug into Keith’s case, he discovered that all the defendants were Black. The police force was dominated by White officers, but “the FBI had targeted only African American officers,” Warnock writes. “As I learned more about my brother’s case, my disappointment in him was matched by my anger at the criminal justice system.” The FBI masterminded the operation, making sure the amount of drugs involved would meet mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for very long stays in prison. Warnock learned that “the operation had used a convicted felon to lure the rookie officers into a fabricated drug operation with the opportunity to make some easy cash.”

Warnock was angry with his brother, whose poor judgment got him into a terrible fix. But he also got a clear view into the inequities facing Black defendants and the harsh legacy of sentencing requirements.

“This was a stunning lesson about the unevenness of the criminal justice system and the racist implications of 1980s and 1990s federal drug laws that put in place the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines,” Warnock writes, “making such harsh sentences possible and rendering too many Black and brown lives disposable.”

The experience made Warnock see his ministry as a place for activism, “where ministry moves beyond the pulpit, where … the preacher actually becomes a sermon, embodying through example the gospel ethic of love and justice.”

Warnock kept pushing for his brother’s release, and in 2020, after 22 years in prison, Keith was one of tens of thousands of nonviolent inmates across the country permitted to serve the rest of their sentences at home during the coronavirus pandemic. Warnock also successfully worked for the 2007 release of Genarlow Wilson, a Georgia man who had received a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for engaging in consensual oral sex with a girl when they were both teenagers.

Warnock was devastated, however, when his efforts failed to get Troy Davis’s death sentence commuted. Davis, who maintained his innocence, was executed in the 1989 killing of an off-duty Savannah police officer. The case drew international attention as seven of the nine witnesses key to Davis’s conviction recanted or changed their stories. The execution brought attention to Georgia’s justice system, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in a country that leads the world in the number of people behind bars.

At times, the book reads like an exhaustive recounting of Warnock’s résumé. I would have liked to have seen more details about his personal struggles with various turns in his life, but limited self-analysis is to be expected when you’re living in a political fishbowl. Any weakness can be exploited by a competitor, especially during a run for reelection. Warnock faces Georgia football legend and Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate nominee, in November.

Warnock’s first term has come at a time when America is embroiled in mass shootings, greater restrictions of civil liberties and voting rights, and social and racial upheaval. In his maiden speech on the Senate floor, Warnock urged his colleagues to pass a voting rights measure, the For the People Act, which he co-sponsored. But it has stalled in the Senate. Why would anyone want such a job?

In “A Way Out of No Way,” Warnock makes clear that the nation’s path to progress is long and difficult. “We are the latest generation that gets to decide whether we’re going to give in to bigotry and fear or push closer to our democratic ideals,” he writes. “I choose hope. I choose inclusivity. I choose equal protection under the law. I choose truth and justice. I choose the beloved community.”

Tammy Joyner is an Atlanta-based journalist.

A Way Out of No Way

A Memoir of Truth, Transformation, and the New American Story

By Raphael G. Warnock

Penguin Press. 230 pp. $28