Days before he is set to be sworn in as Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, the Rev. Raphael Warnock drew on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. from a pulpit where they both preached to make the case for policies he plans to make a priority once he takes on his new job in Washington, D.C.
“A virus has reminded us, a deadly pandemic has reminded us that we are tied together as Dr. King said in a single garment of destiny. Because we’re dealing with a deadly airborne disease, my neighbor coughs and I’m imperiled by the cough of my neighbor,” Warnock said. “That doesn’t make my neighbor my enemy. That means that our destiny is tied together. We are as close in our humanity as a cough.”
The annual King Day service at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church took place mostly online due to COVID-19 during the 35th celebration of the civil rights leader’s birthday as a national holiday. His family and a few others wore masks inside the church where they socially distanced in the pews as President-elect Joe Biden and others delivered remarks remotely.
“Let’s stay together until everybody has access to affordable health care, until we affirm in policy the dignity of work through a livable wage,” Warnock said. “Dr. King died in 1968 standing up for garbage collectors, and the purchasing power of the minimum wage in 1968 was stronger than the purchasing power, the minimum wage in 2021. Something’s wrong with that.”
He pointed to the grocery workers and low-wage earners who have kept the food supply and other necessities available during the pandemic as people who are deserving of pay hike – a top Democratic priority is a $15 minimum wage or about double Georgia’s current floor. Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package last week that includes the $15 minimum wage as part of the proposal.
“If folks are essential workers, we ought to pay them an essential wage. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” Warnock said.
Georgia election officials say they expect to certify the wins of Warnock and fellow Democratic Senator-elect Jon Ossoff in the next few days, possibly ahead of the state’s Jan. 22 deadline. Both could be sworn in soon after state certification.
Biden said via pre-recorded video members of his inauguration team preparing for an event upended by the coronavirus and secured by more than 21,000 soldiers are taking time to participate in the holiday’s pragmatic role as a national day of service.
“Today, the Presidential Inaugural Committee is partnering with service leaders, local state and national organizations all across the country to organize virtual and in-person service events, to give back to those who need it most, to forge new bonds, to take on the persistent, gnawing challenges of poverty, hunger, homelessness and racial and injustice. Challenges we can and we will overcome. We must,” Biden said.
Bernice King, CEO of the King Center and daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., lamented the earthshaking events of the past year and as recently as the riot at the U.S. Capitol this month. She said the sometimes deadly virus, lingering outrage over killings of Black people and the deadly siege in Washington by supporters of President Donald Trump amplify the need to pursue her father’s aim to resolve conflicts through nonviolence.
“Our world has dramatically changed since we were together last January,” she said. “Almost a year ago, we were swept up into a worldwide pandemic that revealed the fault lines in our world health and economic systems that caused unprecedented losses.”
Warnock paid tribute to his late congregant and Ossoff mentor Rep. John Lewis for his lifelong battle to assure equal access to the ballot box, most recently delivered in Georgia during his Jan. 5 runoff election win.
“And to think that the other day, my own mother who grew up in the 1950s in Waycross, Georgia, picking somebody else’s cotton, got to pick her son to be a United States senator,” Warnock said.