Despite recent challenges to civil rights in the United States, the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s hope for the future has not been lost. This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, spanning from the civil-rights leader’s birthday on Jan. 15 to the day of observing his legacy as a nation on Jan. 18, arrives following the great victory of Reverend Dr. Raphael G. Warnock in his runoff Senate race in the state of Georgia.
The victory of Warnock, a Democrat, over his opponent, the Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler was not only a step forward for the entire country, it was a dream realized, one that was set in motion before the Senator-elect was born in 1969. Like his father and grandfather, King attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College, the revered historically Black men’s college in Atlanta founded in 1867. Graduating in 1948 with a degree in sociology, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary to pursue bachelor of divinity coursework, eventually earning a Ph.D. from Boston University. King went on to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and become a pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was founded in 1886.
Through his unwavering dedication to the civil-rights movement, King became an American icon. His words from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., during the March for Jobs and Freedom—often referred to as the March on Washington—were spoken in front of a crowd on the National Mall of more than 250,000, according to The King Center. While a certain portion of his 1963 speech is often used as an excerpt describing his dream for the future of the United States, these famous words are ringing more loudly following Warnock’s victory.
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” King said.
While there is comfort to be found in Warnock’s victory, there remains a long road ahead. During the same famous speech, a less-often quoted statement was made by King, who reminded those listening that much more work was necessary to fulfill his dream.
“No, no we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream,” King said.
The following year after King’s famous speech, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which was legislation that ended legalized racial segregation, in addition to rendering illegal discrimination due to race, religion, sex, or nationality.
The second youngest of 12 children, Warnock was also the son of a preacher. After high school, Warnock followed in King’s footsteps to attend Morehouse College where he pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion, graduating in 1991. While Warnock’s pursuits of higher education mirrored King’s, he chose Union Theological Seminary for his post-graduate work following his time at Morehouse, eventually earning master’s of divinity, master’s of philosophy, and Ph.D. degrees from the school. This determination to succeed through service continues to drive Warnock today.
“I am not about to give up. I am not about to give in. I am not about to throw in the towel,” Warnock said in a Jan. 10 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. “I am not about to allow those who have shortsighted vision to win the day. That is why I fight for justice.”
In 2005, Warnock again chose the path carved out by King, as he was appointed to a senior pastor role at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which has become known as America’s Freedom Church. He was the youngest pastor selected for this role in the church’s history. Serving the community on this hallowed ground that provided a rock for King, afforded a solid foundation for Warnock’s next steps.
Following the results of the Jan. 5 election, Warnock became Georgia’s first Black senator and the 11th African American senator in United States history. During his Jan. 10 sermon, Warnock reinforced his commitment to service, as he commented on his senate-race win and the victory of fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff against another Republican incumbent David Perdue. Warnock noted the extraordinary meaning of his and Ossoff’s victories, invoking King’s words of hope for the people of this nation to “rise up.”
“Whoever would have thought that in the state of Georgia we would see the people of Georgia rise up and send an African American man, who grew up in public housing, the pastor of this Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. king preached, and a Jewish young man, the son of an immigrant, to the United States Senate,” Warnock said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a democrat or a republican, if you look at that, it doesn’t matter about your politics or your ideology. If you look with an honest heart at the history of this country and see this moment, you must know that this is a glimpse of vision of a more inclusive humanity that embraces all of God’s children.”
With these words, Warnock encouraged his congregation to seek honest reflection. It is his belief that only through truth can transformation occur. While accepting the actual history of the country, spreading this truth, and recognizing a clear picture of the nation’s current state could be met with resistance from others, Warnock believes this is the only path toward progress.
“We cannot and we will not change until we confront or are confronted by the sickness of our own situation. That applies to individuals. That applies to institutions. That applies to nations,” Warnock explained. “You can never improve until you come to terms with the fact that you have some malady, that you have some sickness, that you have something that is broken and that is the nature of the human condition.”
Building upon King’s work, Warnock is ready to promote freedom and dignity for all to live a full life in a just country. He described the different forms violence can take in society, apart from physical confrontation. Warnock discussed violence of prejudice and fear, violence of poverty, and violence in politics. The Senator-elect is prepared to perform the difficult work that must be done to afford equity to all through eradicating violence in all forms. Speaking on King’s final efforts during the last days of his life, Warnock noted work of the civil-rights leader on the Poor People’s Campaign and his last trip to Memphis, Tenn., to support the rights of sanitation workers.
“Martin Luther King Jr. went to stand up for workers in 1968 who were standing up for the dignity of work and the dignity of workers and here we are in 2020 and the minimum wage has less purchasing power in 2020 than the minimum wage had in 1968,” Warnock explained. “That is a kind of violence that crushes on the humanity of poor people.”
During this weekend that celebrates the life and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., mourning the potential of a leader whose life was cut short by violence is to be expected, yet sorrow should be accompanied by cautious optimism. Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock is an important successor to King, but he is one of many emerging leaders who are inspiring progress and generating hope. Recognizing their efforts and supporting their work is an integral piece of honoring the late civil-rights leader.
“We must raise the standard,” Warnock explained during the sermon. “We must try to embody in our speech the kind of world we want to see for our children—all of our children.”