More broadly, though, the way Warnock has operated in the last year and a half in the Senate as well as the way he’s vying now for a full six-year term are natural extensions of the tensions that have animated his life and his work — the “double-consciousness” of the Black church, as he describes it in the 2014 book drawn from his doctoral dissertation, the “complementary yet competing sensibilities” of “revivalistic piety and radical protest,” the saving of souls and the salvation of society, what King called “long white robes over yonder” and “a suit and some shoes to wear down here.” In strictly political terms, this tension and connection might be expressed as purity versus pragmatism. And for Warnock, ever the reverend, the balancing act between the high and the low, the eternal and the utterly quotidian, sometimes means taking a run-of-the-mill legislative compromise — one that doesn’t even allocate any actual money for the asphalt — and attempting to frame it as the apotheosis of our ongoing experiment of representative self-government.
“There is a road that runs through our humanity,” Warnock said again at the lectern in the gym, “that is larger than politics, bigger than partisan bickering, certainly bigger than race, bigger than geographical differences … and my job as a legislator, and our job as citizens, is to find our way to that road that connects us to one another — so that everybody can get to where they need to go, so that every child can have access to a good, quality education, so that everybody can have affordable health care …”
Now the applause was so loud he barely could be heard.
“Our job is to build out that road!”
‘The politeness, the kindness, the nonviolent way of being in the world’
Warnock’s road starts in Savannah. He is, he sometimes says, the product of hard work but also good public policy.
Born on July 23, 1969, precisely five years and three weeks after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law at the White House the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Warnock “never drank from a colored water fountain,” never “used a colored restroom,” never “attended a school assigned by the color of my skin,” as he writes in his recent memoir, A Way Out of No Way.
The eleventh of 12 children, he grew up in Kayton Homes public housing in an apartment with four bedrooms, a single bathroom and a set of World Book encyclopedias. His parents were Pentecostal pastors, his father straining to make ends meet by selling to a steelyard old, abandoned cars — but, “thanks to the assistance of the federal government,” Warnock recalls, “my family never lived outdoors, we never went hungry, and I never missed out on an opportunity to learn.”
In preschool, he attended Head Start, which aims to boost the early education of underprivileged preschoolers — one of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs “that have given America’s poor children a chance,” as Warnock has said, “and lifted poor Black children from the sunken places caused by generations of willful racism.”
At Myers Middle School and Johnson High, where Warnock played the baritone horn and was elected senior class president and voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” he was “a free-lunch kid.” He was a participant, too, in Upward Bound — another LBJ program offering academic enrichment for poor students with the potential to be the first in their families to go to college. The experience included six weeks of college prep one summer at Savannah State and a field trip to Atlanta to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where Warnock stood, stared and got goosebumps reading King’s words.
Back in Savannah, at the public library on Bull Street, he listened to LP audio recordings of some of the civil rights movement’s mass meetings. A favorite featured King’s sermon known as “A Knock at Midnight” — in which he called on the church to be “the conscience of the state” and to “speak and act fearlessly and insistently” and “participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice.” Warnock listened to it again and again.
And in 1987 when it came time for college, Warnock consciously modeled King, opting to attend his alma mater at Morehouse in Atlanta — the small, all-male, historically Black institution with an ethos of not only intellectual advancement but social action through leadership and service. The president of Morehouse put a fine point on that charge when we talked last month. “Leadership: How do you make it happen?” said David Thomas. “Service: Who do you make it happen for?”
Paying for school largely with federal Pell Grants and low-interest student loans, Warnock was a psychology major and a religion minor. As a freshman, he was chosen to be a speaker at a fall convocation. And at the on-campus chapel named after King, he was picked by his peers to be the president of the Chapel Assistants, a prominent group of students aspiring to attend seminary.
“The seriousness that you see,” “the careful use of language,” “the politeness, the kindness, the nonviolent way of being in the world is the way he was as a student from the first day I met him,” said Lawrence Carter, the longtime dean of the chapel and one of Warnock’s utmost mentors. “He did not swear. He did not drink. He did not smoke. He did not dress in a voguish way,” Carter told me. “And he’s the only one I can consistently remember coming into the chapel library at the time to study by himself. He would just sit there outside my office, and he would sit there for long periods of time, and write and read, and write and read.”