When Raphael Warnock was born, the state of Georgia was represented in the Senate by two segregationists – one of them, Herman Talmadge, a southern Democrat who opposed civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
Today Warnock, a senior preacher at the Ebenezer Baptist church where Martin Luther King Jr once preached, has been elected the first African American Democratic senator from a formerly Confederate state.
His victory over hardline Trump supporter and Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, who tried to cast Warnock as a “Marxist radical”, is significant for a number of reasons.
It not only marks a repudiation of the racist dog whistle politics of the Trump era, but a change in the political dynamics of Georgia where – until Joe Biden’s victory in the state in November – no Democratic presidential candidate had won since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Growing up in a housing project in Savannah in a family of 12 children, Warnock preached his first sermon at 11 and attended the same college, Morehouse, that King had studied at.
Serving as an intern at the Sixth Avenue Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, under the civil rights activist John Thomas Porter, Warnock would later become the youngest senior preacher at King’s own church.
Outspoken from the pulpit and on the campaign trail about social justice and racial inequality – some of which has been used in crude Republican attack ads against him – Warnock’s approach, as the religious scholar Jonathan Lee Walton wrote recently in the Washington Post, has been informed by a truth telling tradition in African American churches which “places an overwhelming moral emphasis on society’s most vulnerable and oppressed”.
And Warnock’s political rise, in which he has takan up the mantle of an earlier generation of civil rights activists, has coincided with changes in Georgia.
The home state of the former president Jimmy Carter, like other places, has seen its big cities, not least Atlanta, and suburbs increasingly turn Democratic in the last couple of decades, even as the local party has abandoned trying to find candidates palatable to more conservative rural white voters – all of which has helped energise the younger and black electorate in vote-rich metropolitan areas.
The final part of the puzzle, according to some Republicans, was Donald Trump, who interposed his own conspiratorial grievances into the campaign even as he impugned Republican state officials.
And, as Geoffrey Skelley noted on the 538 website, areas that leaned most heavily towards Trump in the presidential elections were the ones that had the biggest drop-offs in voting.
“One takeaway from the results tonight is that Republican fears seem to have materialised when it came to runoff turnout. They were concerned that their base voters might not be as motivated to turn out because of Trump’s rhetoric surrounding election fraud and the legitimacy of the vote in November, Skelley wrote.
He added that the “more heavily a county backed Trump in the November general election, the more its runoff turnout tended to drop relative”to that election.
Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to the Senate leader, Mitch McConnell,noted how badly Trump’s message had played in the Georgia suburbs, tweeting:
In his victory Warnock becomes only the 11th African American US senator in the country’s history and the fourth from the South.
The first two, who represented the Republican party in the reconstruction era, Blanche K Bruce and Hiram Revels, the latter of whom who organised two African American regiments during the civil war, were appointed before the period of popular election to the Senate.
Post-reconstruction, however, the African American electorate who had once voted of an anti-slavery Republican party were disenfranchised, ending congressional representation in many places until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states.
During a speech in Savannah during the campaign, Warnock underlined the arc of his political career, from being arrested in Washington DC during protests to taking his seat in the Senate.
“I wasn’t mad at them,” he said of the police who arrested him. “They were doing their job and I was doing my job.
“But in a few days I’m going to meet those Capitol Hill police officers again and this time they will not be taking me to central booking. They can help me find my new office.”
As Astead Herman put it in the New York Times on election day: “The black senator is a singular road, occupied by few people in American history, and none from Georgia at all.”