"Jim Crow in new clothes": Why Raphael Warnock's inaugural Senate speech just got a standing ovation

The Georgia Democrat — and the Senate's newest member — delivers a shocking inaugural speech

By Heather Digby Parton
March 19, 2021 2:00PM (UTC)
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Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Raphael Warnock of Georgia speaks to supporters during a rally on November 15, 2020 in Marietta, Georgia. Warnock faces incumbent U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) in one of two January 5 runoffs for the U.S. Senate in Georgia. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

There is a long tradition of freshmen U.S. Senators delivering their maiden speech about a signature issue — but it is rare that they get a standing ovation at the end of it. That's what happened on Wednesday when the newly elected Democratic Senator from Georgia, Reverend Raphael Warnock spoke on the floor for the first time, giving an impassioned plea to guarantee voting rights around the country. 

We shouldn't be surprised that Warnock would give such a memorable speech. After all, he was the pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King's church. One of his most important mentors was the late civil rights hero John Lewis, also from Atlanta. So he is a product of a very important American tradition and he lives up to that legacy. The Senate is immeasurably richer having someone with his passion and eloquence making the case for this important issue.

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"Just a few months after Congressman Lewis' death," Warnock said Wednesday as he implored his colleagues to pass S. 1, the For the People Act, "there are those in the Georgia legislature, some who even dare to praise his name, that are now trying to get rid of Souls to the Polls, making it a crime for people who pray together to get on a bus together in order to vote together."

He didn't mince words. He reminded that so-called august body of its history of racist vote suppression even as he spoke with pride about being the first Black man to hold his Georgia Senate seat, formerly held by a rank racist who said that the way to keep Black people from voting was "pistols." Warnock instead declared "ours is a land where possibility is born of democracy":

Some politicians did not approve of the choice made by the majority of voters in a hard-fought election in which each side got the chance to make its case to the voters. And, rather than adjusting their agenda and changing their message, they are busy trying to change the rules. We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights and voter access unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era.

This is Jim Crow in new clothes.

Warnock then went right at the filibuster, which former president Barack Obama also recently, correctly, called "a relic of Jim Crow."

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I stand before you saying that this issue — access to voting and preempting politicians' efforts to restrict voting — is so fundamental to our democracy that it is too important to be held hostage by a Senate rule, especially one historically used to restrict the expansion of basic rights.

It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in the society.

 

I urge you to watch the speech if you haven't seen it. It makes the superficial arguments from men and women who want to turn back the clock to the pre-civil rights era sound as cramped and ignorant as the ideas that animate them:

I'm sure the Republicans will have no problem shrugging off this argument. They are shamelessly self-interested and they know that allowing everyone to vote will not accrue to their favor. But Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are going to have to answer to their constituents and their reputations will be forever associated with those ancient racists Warnock talked about who used the filibuster to deny civil rights back in the day if they fail to meet this moment.

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Warnock wasn't being dogmatic about how this is to be done. He even said he hoped it would be bipartisan. But we know that isn't how it's going to go. Republicans are unanimously opposed and there's no chance they will change their minds. But there are many ideas floating around out there about what might work to get this over the finish line.

I wrote about the dynamics of reforming the filibuster the other day. We will have to see how that goes. But coming to any agreement about that will probably require some negotiations within the Democratic caucus. Election law expert Richard L. Hasen, is pessimistic, writing in the Washington Post that "The For the People Act" likely can't pass the Senate as written and suggests that it should be streamlined. He believes that certain provisions such as the requirement to re-enfranchise felons will be found unconstitutional and "the creation of a public financing program for congressional candidates, new ethics rules for the Supreme Court, and a requirement that most candidates for president and vice president publicly disclose their tax returns" will be non-starters. He suggests focusing more narrowly on specific voting rights provisions like restoring certain aspects of the Voting Rights Act, requiring states to offer online registration and offer at least two weeks of early voting and no-excuse absentee balloting.

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It's possible that that's where the bill may end up when all the horse-trading is done. Those are all fundamental issues that would set back the Republican onslaught in the states. But I can't imagine why Democrats would negotiate with themselves in advance like this. Certainly, any thoughts that some Republicans might sign on to these provisions is as much a fantasy as the idea they would vote for Medicare for All or tax increases for millionaires.

Former Obama White House Counsel, and authority on election law, Bob Bauer, suggested in the New York Times that Democrats need to try to immediately pass a narrow bill that would preclude states from enacting any rules to restrict voting access in federal elections unless it is done on a bipartisan basis. The reasoning is obvious: to ensure the right to vote is not subject to partisan manipulation. Bauer believes the current wave of laws is so dangerous that they need to push something through to put a stop to it and clarify the issues at stake for the public, even as the Senate continues to work on passing S.1.

I don't know if it would be any easier to pass a narrower bill of that kind, but this is a clever way to frame the issue and might just succeed. After all, there are Republicans out there who are getting nervous about all these restrictions as well because it's likely they're going to cause trouble for their own voters. No excuses absentee voting was pushed by the GOP for years and many of their voters, particularly the seniors, prefer it. Eliminating it is purely an impulsive result of Donald Trump's Big Lie. There are plenty of Republican officials who would welcome a reason not to make some of these changes in their states so Democrats would be wise to give it to them. Their constituents aren't eager for these changes either. Recent GOP polling done in Texas found that 86% of Texans thought the 2020 elections went well, 97% had a good experience voting, and 73% (58% of Republicans) support extending early voting by a week.

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For Democrats the end goal is clear and it is imperative: They must stop this assault on voting rights. --- Jim Crow in new clothes, as Warnock so starkly put it. It's going to be a messy process as these various approaches illustrate. But if they don't follow through minority rule could become a permanent condition --- and there will be nothing left to argue about. 


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Democrats Gop Republicans Senate Voting Rights Warnock