Georgia on our minds
This MLK Day comes after two Senate races and a voting rights activist changed the U.S.
On this day remembering the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., evidence exists everywhere that his life’s work is not yet done. A lifelong warrior for both civil rights for Black Americans and for better living and working conditions for poor people of every race and description, King was a social justice leader who worked for a better America all the way up until he was murdered in Memphis in April 1968.
But amid the deepening economic inequality and racial divide of our times, there are also glimpses of King’s vision coming true. For those moments of hope we are grateful today.
A striking example has been the political earthquake building over the past two years in Georgia, the state where King was born and from which he led his nonviolent movement for civil rights.
Just 26 months ago, former Georgia state lawmaker Stacey Abrams was on the losing end of a terribly close election for governor. Amid furious claims of voter suppression, which remain disputed, she stewed for a while — refusing even to formally concede, so certain that Black votes had been suppressed — but then, in the best imitation of King, she got busy.
What she accomplished since has changed the course of American history — and provided the country something it badly needs now: reason to believe that we are still on the path King set toward becoming a place where all citizens, regardless of our stations in life, have a stake in our future, a voice that can be heard and a vote that will be counted.
As Brian Kemp, the third consecutive Republican to serve as Georgia governor, was being sworn in after the 2018 election, Abrams began working with an army of fellow activists to identify Black voters whose voices had been missing in the state’s big elections. She helped them work around the legal and other barriers to Black participation on Election Day that are so prevalent in her state and many others in the South, including Texas.
In November, the power of those voices reverberated across America as Georgia voters’ famous allegiance to Republican presidential candidates — they hadn’t backed a Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992 — was upended by a narrow victory for Democrat Joe Biden. The echoes swelled to a thunderclap this month, when Democrats outvoted Republicans in races against each of Georgia’s two incumbent Republican U.S. senators.
“Across our state, we roared,” Abrams said after the Jan. 5 victories.
The victories gave Democrats control of the U.S. Senate, promising to supercharge Biden’s presidency.
But they’re more than partisan victories. All Americans, Democrats and Republicans, can be proud of something bigger in Georgia’s election outcome.
What’s inspiring, and so fitting to recall on this day, is that one of the winners is a
Black man who for 15 years has been pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, once the home base for King, and who brings a radically different set of life experiences to the Capitol than the men who usually serve in the upper chamber.
Born the 11th of 12 children to parents in Savannah, including a mother who picked cotton in her youth, the fiery preacher is the first Black Democrat elected to the Senate from the South.
“The other day, because this is America,” the Rev. Raphael Warnock said after the win, “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.”
Also on Jan. 5, Georgia voters elected 33-year-old Jon Ossoff, the youngest senator since Biden more than 40 years ago. Ossoff, the son of an immigrant and one of the few Jews ever to represent the South in the Senate, beat incumbent Republican David Perdue.
Democrats began singing Abrams’ praises even before all the votes had been cast, so effective had been her work organizing and turning out Black voters. But the former Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives has insisted — credibly — that many others also deserve credit for what was a massive response to the 2018 claims of voter suppression.
Looking ahead to the 2020 election, Abrams knew she had strong backing to run for one of the two Senate seats, but instead poured her energies into a grassroots organizing effort that eventually registered upward of 800,000 new voters. These voters helped Biden and the Senate candidates win their races and send President Donald Trump into a post-election spiral.
His funk over his loss led him to call both Kemp and new Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to demand they do something to overturn the state’s votes or find him enough votes to win.
To their enormous credit, they bravely refused. They chose democracy, and the Constitution, over partisan politics, perhaps even at the risk of their own political careers. The president responded with personal attacks, saying he was “ashamed” of ever endorsing Kemp and vowing to retaliate politically.
Rarely have two such bitter rivals as Kemp and Abrams played important roles with the integrity they did in the two years following their 2018 gubernatorial race.
Democracy survives, and politics in Georgia — where opposition to civil rights has for so long been a potent tool in the pitch for conservative white voters, first among Democrats during the Jim Crow era and later for GOP voters — may never be the same.
That’s a kind of outcome Dr. King would have approved of.