Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The victories of the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia put the United States in the midst of truly transformative times.
America’s ongoing Third Reconstruction – a searing effort to literally and figuratively reimagine American democracy as multiracial, antiracist and dedicated to intersectional social justice – continued Tuesday in the Peach State as the Democratic Senate candidates Warnock and Ossoff defeated Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in a runoff election.
Warnock will become the first Black senator to represent Georgia, the home state of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose church Warnock presides over and whom the candidate invoked often during his campaign and in his victory speech. It’s also a state whose Stone Mountain serves as a violently nostalgic homage to the renewed Ku Klux Klan of the early 20th century.
Warnock is, after South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, just the second African American elected to the US Senate from a Southern state. During Reconstruction, Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce served brief Senate terms (before senators were elected by popular vote). Crucially, Warnock’s victory benefited from the reverse migration of African Americans back South that has followed the Great Migrations of the first half of the 20th century to Northern cities.
The region is being transformed, political, culturally and economically, by an infusion of residents unbowed by the South’s racial past. This wave of change is imbuing the nation with a new self-awareness of its traumatic political past and the opportunities to achieve a different vision of American democracy and society.
Even as Americans struggle to process the horrifying images coming from Washington, DC, of violence at the Capitol, they are also hearing the message of what’s happened in Georgia. These victories cannot be muted by riots. They speak loud and clear: America has arrived at a hinge point in our long racial history, an inflection point where history collides with contemporary culture to innovate bold new political directions.
Warnock represents the fusion of old and new forms of Southern politics. Atlanta, which once dubbed itself “The City Too Busy to Hate,” has proven the seeding ground for the kind of political and cultural transformation dreamed of by King but made more readily available in our own time by the combination of demographic changes, grassroots political organizing and social movements.
Rev. Warnock’s victory is remarkable in the fact that he consciously ran a campaign rooted in aspects of Martin Luther King’s vision of creating a “Beloved Community” free of racism, economic injustice and poverty. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech referenced Stone Mountain, a living monument to the tattered dreams of White supremacy, as a place where freedom did not yet ring but one day would.
This moment has been a long time coming, one orchestrated in part through the tireless voting rights advocacy of Black women activists led by Stacey Abrams, the onetime gubernatorial candidate who turned a close loss to Brian Kemp in 2018 into a comeback for the ages. Abrams’ political advocacy transcended personal and partisan interests. She proved herself determined to be a service-oriented political and policy leader devoted to a project larger than her individual ambitions – preserving, protecting and expanding voting rights for Black Americans.
She received plenty of help. 2020’s year of racial and political reckoning, amid a health pandemic that triggered economic devastation and a President and Republican Party openly hostile to honoring election results, helped to galvanize millions of Americans for the first time. The cultural power of a national Black Lives Matter movement inspired people from celebrities to sports figures to become politically engaged.
WNBA players openly endorsed Rev. Warnock, a sign that this New Year is a time for choosing moral sides rather than embracing the kind of neutrality that allows political oppression to grow and expand.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s pointed rejection of the WNBA’s racial justice message set stark lines between the two candidates and reflected the cultural divide within the nation. Rev. Warnock was far behind Loeffler when the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream started to wear “Vote Warnock” T-shirts that helped to propel him to the US Senate. The increasing political consciousness of WNBA players was further enhanced by Abrams’ position on the board of advocates of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. The players, predominantly Black women, used their athletic platform to spur social change, a move further amplified in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.
Atlanta’s hip-hop artists also played a decisive role in voter turnout, organizing rallies and fundraising in support of Biden and Harris this past November, and then Warnock and Ossoff. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Rapper Young Jeezy explained, “If the right people are not in the Senate, it’s gonna make it hard for the Biden-Harris administration to do anything they need to do and that they promised to us.”
In truly extraordinary ways, politics and culture have been realigned in service of an expansively inclusive vision of American democracy, one wherein Black athletes, musicians and artists are utilizing their platforms to promote social justice on an unprecedented scale.
That Georgia, in one fell swoop, could elect two senators, one Black and one Jewish, who will give the Democratic Party control of Congress is not only remarkable, but it echoes the close relationship between these two communities that peaked during the civil rights movement’s heroic period. Warnock characterized Ossoff as “his brother from another mother” and the newly elected Black senator’s progressive rhetoric seemed to rub off on Ossoff as Election Day neared.
From Dr. King’s relationship with the towering Jewish Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to the extraordinary numbers of Jewish students who volunteered for 1964’s Freedom Summer and locked arms with Black citizens in Selma, Black-Jewish alliances during the civil rights era proved indispensable to achieving the movement’s larger goals. In the age of Black Lives Matter, especially since George Floyd’s murder, we have witnessed a resurgence of this coalition that is perhaps best symbolized by the dual victories of Warnock and Ossoff. In so doing, this special election illustrated the possible rise of a religious left of Christian and Jewish voters in support of progressive politics in a part of the country long thought to be hopelessly conservative.
Black voters deserve a special shout-out. Rebuked and scorned historically, abused and traumatized in the present, but in possession of a defiant, faith-fueled dignity, Black folk organized in the face of threats, harassment and potential violence to exercise democratic rights that parts of the nation remain intent on stripping away.
And this is not the first time they have displayed such loyalty and love to a country that stubbornly refuses to return these feelings. During America’s First Reconstruction after the Civil War, Black men achieved voting rights after 1870 and formed powerful interracial coalitions that led to public schools, better local and national infrastructure, and promised to transform democracy before being repelled through both physical violence and baseless allegations of election fraud of the kind that Trump and Republicans have resurrected today.
We can see the aftermath of this moment in history still unfolding in the race baiting, unfounded allegations of election fraud and conspiracy theories that have become the hallmark of the modern-day GOP.
Georgia reminds us that history is not destiny. America always has a choice, an opportunity, a calling to right wrongs, spread justice, do good. 2020’s whiplash-inducing days of hope shadowed by racial violence, a global health pandemic and economic inequality might prove to be the growing pains required to become a mature democracy. Tuesday’s election outcome illustrates how the national power and resonance of the Black struggle for citizenship and dignity – in all aspects of society – holds the key to not just understanding America’s past but embracing a more liberated and just future.