Rev. Raphael Warnock’s victory on Wednesday over incumbent Republican Georgia U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler in a runoff election made history in more than one way. He became the first Black U.S. Senator elected from Georgia, the first Black Democratic U.S. Senator elected in the South and, when he’s sworn in, he’ll become only the 11th Black senator elected in U.S. history.
Warnock is one of 12 children, who grew up in a Savannah housing project. He went on to get a PhD and follow in Martin Luther King’s footsteps as a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. In a speech shortly after midnight on Wednesday, he discussed the historic moment his election represented by talking about what it meant for his mother to vote for him on Tuesday. He noted, “the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.” In fact, historian and author of The False Cause Adam Domby pointed out to TIME that Warnock’s seat was formerly held by John B. Gordon, a Confederate general who was also believed to have led the Georgia branch of the Ku Klux Klan.
Andrew Young, former Georgia Congressman and one of the most prominent activists in the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement that pushed for the Voting Rights Act, called Warnock’s Senate win “another milestone in the long, long road.”
“We always said that freedom is a constant struggle,” the 88-year-old tells TIME by phone from his home in Atlanta (a day after getting his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine). When he took office in 1973, Young became Georgia’s first Black congressman in more than a century. “We’ve been making progress slowly, but this is clearly one of the biggest steps.”
While Warnock’s win is historic, it’s also an important moment to learn from history. Such gains towards representation have been followed by devastating losses and setbacks from those who resent such progress. After all, following the first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate in the 1870s and 1880s, it wouldn’t be until 1967 that another African American would be elected.
“The fact is that it’s taken this long to witness another [election of a Black U.S. senator] really demonstrates how deeply entrenched white supremacy has been in the electoral process in this country and the lengths that Black people, especially in the South, have had to go to overcome that is nothing short of heroic,” says Kali Nicole Gross, professor of African American Studies at Emory University and co-author of A Black Women’s History of the United States.
The first Black U.S. senator was Hiram R. Revels, who filled a vacant Mississippi U.S. Senate seat from 1870-1871, taking the oath of office 22 days after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, barring states from restricting the right to vote based on one’s race. He was a minister who fought in the Civil War and a staunch supporter of the education of freed slaves. The first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate was Republican Blanche K. Bruce, a plantation owner and founder of Missouri’s first school for Black children, who represented Mississippi from 1875 to 1881. Bruce and Revels were among the estimated 2,000 black men who held some official position in former Confederate states.
“The Reconstruction era was the first time that en masse Black men had the right to vote,” says Carol Anderson, chair of African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta and author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.
But over the next century, states worked around the 15th Amendment by passing laws on voting requirements that didn’t mention race, but were enforced unequally, and minorities were more subjected to them than white people registering to vote. Black voters faced violence and intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan. And a compromise that gave the 1876 presidential election to Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops designed to enforce Reconstruction laws ensuring Black citizenship rights, essentially paving the way for Jim Crow segregation laws.
Prior to the mid-1960s, “In states like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, you would have single digit percentages of African Americans registered to vote and counties that were overwhelmingly Black with zero number of African Americans registered to vote because of the terror and the disenfranchising policies put in place, like poll taxes and literacy tests,” says Anderson. “When you really think about American democracy, we didn’t really get close to it until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.“
When asked how Young feels about the state of civil rights today, the former confidante of Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “I think it’s really better than it’s ever been in my lifetime,” noting “an awakening of the white community” based, in part, on the number of “Black Lives Matter” yard signs put up by white residents of the Atlanta suburbs after the death of George Floyd. But he acknowledges that much more work still has to be done to dismantle systemic racism.
“We started out saying our purpose was to redeem the soul of America, and [to combat] the triple evils of racism, war and poverty. I think we’ve made significant progress on racism and war, but the problems we have now are related to poverty, and that’s housing and healthcare and education,” Young says.
Despite Warnock’s victory, voter suppression tactics continue. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened part of the federal oversight provisions in the Voting Rights Act, voter rolls face purges that disproportionately target minority voters, closures at many polling places have forced people to wait longer to vote.
Yet they persisted. In Georgia, voting rights advocates registered more than 800,000 new voters since Stacey Abrams lost the 2018 gubernatorial race and dedicated herself full-time to helping Georgians register to vote. This grassroots organizing has been credited with Georgia electing Joe Biden for President, the first time the state went blue since Bill Clinton in 1992. In 2020, Black voters were a critical bloc, who voted early in greater numbers in this week’s runoff than in the general election last November.
While Black grassroots organizers overcame efforts to try to tamp down Black turnout, historians Anderson and Gross say the key will be watching for efforts to put up more obstacles to voting.
“I expect to see a continuing pushback,” as Anderson puts it. “We need to be ready for the massive policy backlash, which will come in the form of massive voter suppression.”
“History shows us that this is a really pivotal moment and that we need to be vigilant,” says Gross. “We can celebrate Warnock’s election, but we had this in Reconstruction and then once Reconstruction collapsed, 20 years later we got Plessy v. Ferguson which initiated Jim Crow. We’ve seen these moments of progress, and we know that democracy and racial justice and equality aren’t a linear process in this country.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the day after Warnock’s election, violent pro-Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. To historians, the photos and videos of an insurrectionist mob (not to mention the Confederate flags carried into the Capitol) echoed the kind of backlash seen after Reconstruction.
“I think it would be wrong not to consider what happened at the Capitol yesterday without also thinking about the elections in Georgia,” Rachel Shelden, historian and author of Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, & the Coming of the Civil War, said in an email. “White supremacists waged a campaign of terror against Black men who tried to exercise their political rights and corrupted the very same institutions we saw attacked yesterday in Washington—the peaceful transfer of power, the popular vote, the peaceful assembly of government. It’s impossible not to see the imagery of the rioters carrying Confederate flags in the Capitol and not understand this as a similar kind of reaction to Black men and women exercising their political power.”