Raphael Warnock to Senate colleagues: ‘You can't remember MLK and dismember his legacy’

Senator Raphael G. Warnock attends the 2022 King Holiday Observance Beloved Community Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Jan. 17, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images) | Getty Images/Paras Griffin

Rev. Raphael Warnock, who was elected as Georgia’s first black U.S. senator a year ago, urged his colleagues in Congress Monday not to "dismember" the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by opposing Democrat-backed voting rights legislation.

The 52-year-old Warnock, who continues to lead the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and King Jr. both served as pastors, made the call during the Beloved Community Commemorative Service remembering famed civil rights leader's life at the church on Monday. 

“Our nation needs our prayers. We are at a critical moment. As pastor of this church now for over 16 years, I know that at this time of the year, everybody lines up to offer praise in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. Everybody loves Dr. King. They just don’t always love what he represents,” Warnock began.

“Everybody quotes Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend. Perhaps the most quoted speech will be that one that he delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. ‘I Have a Dream’ 1963, an important speech.”

However, Warnock reminded the audience that the “I Have a Dream” speech was not the first speech King gave before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“First time he gave a speech at the Lincoln Memorial the year was 1957, when Dr. King, in his own relevant and powerful and prescient way, talked about ‘all kinds of conniving methods being used to stop people from voting,’” Warnock said. “Was he talking about then or was he talking about now?” Warnock continued before taking aim at his colleagues.

“I asked the question because I’ve been to this mountain at this moment time and time again, and I know that politicians especially, God bless their hearts, would want to be seen standing where Dr. King stood,” he said. “Let the word go forth. You cannot remember Dr. King and dismember his legacy at the same time. If you would speak his name, you have to stand up for voting rights. You have to stand up on behalf of the poor and the oppressed and the disenfranchised.” 

The Democrat continued that those championing the words of King “have to stand up for healthcare because he said out of all the injustices, inequality in healthcare is the most shocking and the most inhumane.”

He invoked the words of Joshua 24:15.

“I was a preacher long before I was in the Senate,” he said. “So I offer you the words of Joshua. ‘Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.’”

Democrats have been loudly beating the voting-rights drum in recent weeks, including some in the faith community. About 25 progressive faith leaders recently embarked on a hunger strike in a bid to push Congress to pass voting rights legislation by Martin L. King Jr. Day Monday.

Conservatives contend that bills, such as the one passed last year in Georgia, aim to improve the integrity of the voting process amid allegations of voter fraud. Progressives believe that such bills curtail ballot access for urban and suburban communities.

Legislation proposed since Democrats won the House in 2018 includes the For the People Act, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Last week, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill that combines the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. That bill is now before the more evenly divided Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris breaks a 50-50 tie in favor of the Democrats. 

The Democrats’ voting bills have been met with varying degrees of resistance from Republicans while an ongoing debate over whether the Senate filibuster should be repealed continues to rage.

Abolishing the filibuster would give Democrats the ability to pass bills with a simple majority in the Senate rather than compromising with Republicans to meet a 60-vote threshold. Two Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have said they would not vote to end the filibuster. 

“I am sometimes sitting in the chamber when some of my colleagues are making arguments against the voting rights bills that we are trying to pass right now, and as I listen to their arguments, their arguments sounded strangely familiar,” Warnock argued Monday.

“And I began to wonder why, and I went back and looked again at the history that I’ve studied my whole life, and I realized that many of the segregationists who opposed voting rights … many of the opponents of voting rights, they didn’t stand up and say we are opposed to black people voting. They made state’s rights arguments.”

He argued that “voter suppression” bills have been passed in 19 states and introduced in 49 states.

“Governors and members of the Congress are channeling old state’s rights arguments to fight against voting rights now the same way they did back then,” he contends. “So … Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. You cannot remember Dr. King and dismember his legacy at the same time.”

As progressives maintain their voting bills aims to prevent states from suppressing votes, critics of the legislation say they are attempts to defang voter identification laws passed in 35 states, ban the updating of voter rolls and block poll observers from watching the vote count.

US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a meeting with members of the Democratic Texas State Senate and Texas House of Representatives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC on June 16, 2021. | MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Several other speakers at the King ceremonial event, including Vice President Harris, who joined remotely, spoke about voting rights and the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which aims to set national standards for voting access.

“A landmark bill, as we all know, sits before the United States Senate: ‘The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. This bill represents the first real opportunity to secure the freedom to vote since the United States Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act nearly a decade ago. And the Senate must pass this bill now,” Harris said.

“You know, it was more than 55 years ago that men, women and children marched from Selma to Montgomery to demand the ballot. When they arrived at the state capitol in Alabama, Dr. King decried what he called ‘normalcy’ — the normalcy, the complacency that was denying people the freedom to vote.”

Harris stressed that the “only normalcy” King would accept is the “normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all God’s children.”

“Today, we must not be complacent or complicit. We must not give up, and we must not give in,” she said. “To truly honor the legacy of the man we celebrate today, we must continue to fight for the freedom to vote, for freedom for all.”

Despite a Democrat-imposed Martin Luther King Day deadline to vote on the voting rights bill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced last Thursday that a vote won’t take place until at least Tuesday. But Democrats don’t appear to have enough votes to pass the legislation as long as the filibuster remains in place. 

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