Sen. Raphael Warnock on Jan. 6 and the GA Senate Race

January 6, 2021 was a day for America’s history books – but so was the day before, when Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff became the first Black and Jewish candidates in Georgia history to win seats in the U.S. Senate. Senator Warnock reflects on all that brought him to this moment in a new memoir, “A Way Out of No Way.” He speaks with Michel Martin.

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BIANNA GOLODRYGA, HOST: Well, we’re turning now to Washington and new information just revealed that former President Trump tried to contact a member of the White House support staff who was talking to the January 6 Select Committee. Now, that’s raising questions about potential witness tampering. January 6, 2021, we know, is a day for America’s history books, but so is the day before it. That’s when Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won Georgia’s two Senate seats, the first African-American and first Jewish senators from the state. Senator Warnock is now reflecting on all that brought him to this moment in a new memoir called “A Way Out of No Way.” And here is talking with Michel Martin.


MICHEL MARTIN, CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Bianna. Senator Warnock, thank you so much for joining us.

SEN. RAPHAEL WARNOCK (D-GA): Great to be here with you.

MARTIN: You know, I can’t help but remember that your time in public office is so intimately entwined with the events of January 6. I mean, on January 5, you became the first black senator from your home state. Obviously, it’s your first time in elective office. You’re only the 11th black person to serve in the U.S. Senate. And the very next day, what we could I think fairly describe as a lynch mob attacks the place where you’re soon to serve. And I’m just thinking that must have been this kind of welter of emotions. Can you just take us back to that? What was going through your mind in — over those two days?

WARNOCK: Yes, you’re correct. And I talked about this in my book, “A Way Out of No Way.” On January 5, I was elected the first African-American senator from the great state of Georgia. But, also, Jon Ossoff, was elected the first Jewish senator. So think about that. The state of Georgia, a former state of the Confederacy, elected in one fell swoop an African-American and a Jewish senator. And I think, somewhere in glory, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were dancing, because, when they marched, they marched alongside one another. It gives voice, regardless of your politics, to the best of who we are, as a diverse American people. That happened on January 5. And then, on January 6, we saw the most violent assault on our Capitol since 1812, the War of 1812. Racist and antisemitic slogans and language trafficked through our Capitol. Police officers were brutalized. People were killed. And so I think, in a real sense, that’s where we are in this moment. We are somewhere as a nation between January 5 and January 6, between our hopes and our fears, between the politics of division and that grand American creed e pluribus unum, out of many, one. And our job right now, I think, is to push us closer towards our ideals, to hold at bay the demagogues who are trying to divide us, because people who have no vision traffic in division, and to recommit ourselves to that Grand Democratic idea. It has been complicated. Our story has always been complicated as an American people. We — it’s not — it’s too easy to say January 6 is not who we are. The sad truth is that is a part of who we are. But we’re also January 5, when a kid who grew up in public housing gets to serve in the United States Senate. And so I’m going to keep fighting for the best and the American promise.

MARTIN: Did it change anything about the way you approached or you thought about your job as a senator?

WARNOCK: Well, I have been in these fights for a long time. For 17 years now, I have served as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. served and his father and his grandfather before that, all social justice activists. So, for someone who’s been engaged in the fight against voter suppression and for voting rights, dealing with climate justice, dealing with the problem of mass incarceration in our country, the land of the free is the incarceration capital of the world, I think I have a clear-eyed, tough- minded view of just how difficult these fights are. But, certainly, when we all watched what happened unfold on our television sets, we couldn’t help but recoil with horror. And it just reminded us of just how much is at stake and how tough the fight really is, and that we have to keep doing the work, which is why, along with the other things that I have been focused on, right now, I’m very much focused on lowering costs for Georgians, who are dealing with rising costs in the midst of global inflation. I also have been very focused on fighting for voting rights, because the assault that we saw on January 6, driven by the big lie that somehow the election had been stolen, behind that is the premise that certain voices, certain votes ought not count. You don’t get to decide who the president and who the senators will be. That’s the ugly premise behind what happened on January 6. And, unfortunately, it metastasized in dozens of voter suppression laws passed all across the United States. And so the fight continues.

MARTIN: Why did you want to be in elected office to begin with? I mean, as I remembered from your memoir, as you recount in your memoir, you wanted to be a minister since you were a small child. In fact, you started preaching when you were a child. One could argue you had one of the greatest pulpits in America, Ebenezer Baptist Church, where, as you pointed out, that members of the King family preached for decades. It’s a great honor, a national platform. So why did you want to be in elective office to begin with, specifically the Senate?

WARNOCK: Well, let me be very clear. I am not in love with politics. I’m in love with change. And I decided to get involved in something as messy as politics with the hope that I could continue the fights that I have been engaged in for years. I have been fighting, for example, for Medicaid expansion in Georgia from my pulpit, where I still preach, by the way, for years. I went to the United States Capitol years ago, not as a senator, but as an activist. I got arrested in the Rotunda of the Capitol fighting for Medicaid expansion, standing up against a bill in which they were giving a $2 trillion tax cut mostly to the 1 percent, while taking resources away from the children’s health care program. And now my office is down the hall from that Rotunda where I got arrested. So, in a real sense, my work in the Senate is a continuation of my lifelong commitment to service, the work I have tried to do.

MARTIN: Georgia has been sort of ground zero for the last few years in sort of all of these major fights that have consumed the public. It was, obviously, as I think has become manifestly clear with these hearings, a target of the former president’s efforts to intimidate election officials into finding votes in his favor. The legislature in Georgia then went on to pass some of the first wave of bills that people like yourself call voter suppression bills. Why do you think that is? Why do you think that George has sort of become the nexus of so many of these incredible strains?

WARNOCK: Well, I think, in some ways, it’s a reflection not only of Georgia, but of the South. I think an argument could be could be made that as goes to South, in a real sense, so goes the rest of the nation. But with Georgia in particular, it’s not the first time we have been at the nexus of American history. After all, Georgia’s greatest sons and certainly one of the greatest Americans, Martin Luther King Jr., hails from Georgia. And we saw in 2020 – – who would have thought that Georgia would be the defining place where we would see who would have control over the Senate? And I’m very proud of my state. It’s complicated. Our state is complicated, like America is. But I was born in Georgia, grew up in public housing on the west side of Savannah, Georgia, one of 12 children in my family. I’m number 11, and the first college graduate. When you look at me, you look not only at a United States senator, but someone who knows firsthand the importance of good public policy. I often say I’m an alum of Head Start, a program that makes sure that preschool-age kids have access to the kind of learning and reading that they need. I’m an alum of Upward Bound, another federal program that put me on a college campus as a high school student, so I could imagine myself there and could get the kind of enrichment and tutoring and support that I needed, from which I was able then to go to Morehouse College on Pell Grants and low-interest student loans. And so this is the work that that’s the background that informs the work that I do every single day. And it has helped me and emboldened my fight, as I say in the book, to make a way out of no way.

MARTIN: So — but what do you think it says that your opponent in this race is somebody who has been described even by his own campaign staff as truth-challenged, who has — either by omission or commission who has not been honest about his academic record, his business dealings, the number of children he has, but that someone with those obvious deficiencies as a candidate is apparently running neck and neck with you? I mean, does that say something? Does that say something about our politics right now? Do you draw any conclusion from that?

WARNOCK: I think that the differences between me and my opponent are stark, and that the people of Georgia have a real choice to make about who they think is ready to represent them in the United States Senate. I remain hopeful and deeply honored that I am representing the people of Georgia in this defining moment in our American story. There’s a reason why entitled, my memoir, “A Way Out of No Way”. It is a phrase, by the way, that comes deep from within the culture of the black church. But we often say at our churches that God makes a way out of no way. It is a phrase borne of struggle, of pain and peril, and yet keeping the faith. Hoping against hope. And it’s the honor of my life to translate that faith, not in a narrow sectarian and doctrinal way but in terms of values, compassion, empathy, truth telling, love, justice. That’s what informs my work every single day. And propels me in the fight to lower costs for Georgians. Across racial lines who are trying to figure out how to get their kids through college, who are trying to figure out how to pay for prescription drugs, and who want to embrace the best of the American promise. And I look forward to having that conversation.

MARTIN: How do you understand the fact that, at this juncture in our history, there are people who say they are animated by the same fate. The same love of the same God and the same savior who say that it is taking them in the direction of wanting to outlaw abortion, perhaps reconsider same-sex marriage. How do you understand that?

WARNOCK: It’s nothing new. There were questions on both sides of the struggle around abolition. There were Christians on both sides of the civil rights movement. And, in this moment, I can only tell you that my faith is for me a bridge. It’s not a cudgel. It’s not a weapon that I used to weaponize against others. And what informs me is, I think, the basic values that are in all the grand religious traditions who, in some way or another say, love your neighbor as yourself. And so, it is this basic commitment to humanity in all of its variation, in all of its expressions that guides the work that I do around reproductive justice, around the dignity of members of the LGBTQ Plus community. It is the recognition that Dr. King said, that we are tied in the single garment of destiny. That what happens to one directly affects all indirectly. And so, I think that’s the work and that’s the vision that inspires what I do every single day.

MARTIN: So — but I guess what I’m trying to understand here is you’ve made the argument that you’re work in politics and government is your faith in action, right? It is faith-made masses, OK. So, I don’t think anybody would argue that Joe Biden is a deeply moral man. I think that he has tried to lift his faith. He’s been very open about hose he’s tried to live his faith throughout his, sort of, career in public life. How do you understand the fact that, for example, his polling numbers are as low as they are when he’s managed to do things that his predecessor long promised and didn’t accomplish? Do you see my point? I mean, you’re making the case around values, but if the public doesn’t understand or agree that your values would be — or their lives are getting better, what do you do?

WARNOCK: Here’s what I refused to do, and that is to make the politics about me. And I really do mean that. Because I think that that danger is inherent in politics because after all, as you point out, we do have to run for reelection. And do I want to serve six more years in the Senate? Absolutely, because I’ve got some things I want to do for the people of Georgia. But I think inherent in the requirement which is good of having to run for reelection. The danger is that a person who serves in politics will become his or her own highest cause. That that becomes the thing. And I think we have a whole crop of politicians who are so focused on the next election that they’re not thinking about the next generation. And as a consequence, even in the places where the American people are in agreement around, for example, the need for universal background checks, as we were having that discussion. I’m glad we got something done after 19 kids were slaughtered in a classroom. Around the need to have realistic and common-sense responses to the very real threat of climate change. We can’t get movement on things too often that even the American people agree on because the politicians are focused on themselves. And maybe it’s because I’ve spent my whole life in ministry. I’m not about to, all of a sudden, reverse and spend my life and my time focused on me. I’m going to do this work.

MARTIN: So, before we let me go, talk to us a little bit about the book. You talked a lot about some of the disappointments that you’ve had along the way, where you didn’t get a vote that you particularly wanted. You didn’t get a ministerial position that you particularly wanted where I — I remember, you’re close were stolen out of a laundromat where you worked all summer to try to enhance your wardrobe, which I found really, you know, moving, as having been a college kid on scholarship myself at one point. And, you know, remembering those days.And you talk so beautifully about your parents, your dad in particular, who work for himself, you know, collecting salvage materials his entire life because he wanted to work for himself and have some, sort of, have some dignity. And I just — you know, is there anything in particular that you want people to draw from reading your story?

WARNOCK: Yes, as you point out, I often think about my dad of sacred memory. He was a preacher and a junk man. During the week, he picked up old broken cars and loaded them up back on the back of a truck and took them to the local steel yard. And on Sunday morning, the man who lifted broken cars all week, lifted broken people, convincing them of their value and of their possibility. And I think something about sitting there listening to him preach, even as a kid, you think you’re not paying attention, but hearing him preach Sunday after Sunday had an indelible impression on me. But, also, just the way in which he lived his life. He was a man born in 1917, I had an older father, who once was asked to give up his seat to a young white teenager on a bus while wearing his soldier’s uniform during the World War II era. Somehow it was — the skin he was wearing was more important than the uniform he was wearing. But my dad never gave into bitterness, hatred. And he was a patriot. He passed on that faith to his children. And my siblings and I are the products of that. I have a mother who, thankfully is still alive. She grew up in Waycross, Georgia. Picking somebody else’s cotton and tobacco. This last election season, she got to pick her youngest son to be a United States Senator. That’s the hope that I continue to carry with me. I’m inspired not only by them but by John Lewis who was my parishioner. He had no reason to think he could win when he crossed that Edmund Pettus Bridge. But he did it because it was the right thing to do. And somehow that bridge became a bridge to the future. We never know in that moment breaks, but it’s our job, it’s our responsibility, it’s our civic duty to keep pushing.

MARTIN: Senator Warnock, Reverend Warnock, thank you so much for joining us today.

WARNOCK: Great to be with you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Saudi human rights activist Lina al-Hathloul discusses her crusade to free political prisoners. Sen. Raphael Warnock reflects on Jan. 6 and Georgia’s Senate race. Director Yariv Mozer discusses his new documentary “The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes.”