Twitter video screenshot

Sen. Raphael Warnock gave his first speech in the US Senate yesterday, delivering a powerful argument for protecting voting rights and reminding us that "oratory" is a word that really means something. It probably shouldn't at all be surprising that he's an amazing speaker, what with his being pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. You'd want nothing less from someone who preaches from the pulpit once held by Martin Luther King Jr., and whose congregants included the late John Lewis.

Warnock, a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the For the People Act that recently passed in the House, argued that if the Senate doesn't protect the rights of all Americans to vote, then the Senate itself is failing its constitutional duty. Take 20 minutes to watch the speech, and see why rhetoric means the art (and the study) of effective communication, and isn't just a synonym for empty blather:

If all Senate speeches were this good, CSPAN2 viewership would go through the roof.


Warnock prefaced his remarks with a tribute to the eight people, six of them Asian women, murdered in the Atlanta area Tuesday, saying the "unspeakable violence visited largely upon the Asian community is one that causes all of us to recommit ourselves to the way of peace, an active peace that prevents these kinds of tragedies from happening in the first place."

He then spoke of his roots in Georgia, from growing up in Savannah to graduating from Morehouse College and serving at Ebenezer Baptist: "In a word, I am Georgia. A living example and embodiment of its history and hope, the pain and the promise, the brutality and the possibility."

Continuing that theme, Warnock noted that he now holds the Senate seat once occupied by vicious segregationist Herman E. Talmadge, who railed after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that "blood will run in the streets of Atlanta." The senator was the son of Eugene Talmadge, governor of Georgia for three terms in the 1930s and '40s, who

had famously declared, "The South loves the Negro in his place, but his place is at the back door." When once asked how he and his supporters might keep Black people away from the polls, he picked up a scrap of paper and wrote a single word on it: "Pistols."

But America's "covenant," Warnock said, its "charter documents and its Jeffersonian ideals," inspired the struggle of patriots like King and the movement he led to make the nation live up to promises that hadn't originally included all people. His mother was the daughter of sharecroppers, he said, and her "82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else's cotton went to the polls in January and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator. Ours is a land where possibility is born of democracy."

But now, after Georgians turned out in record numbers to vote for a Democratic president and the state's first Black senator and first Jewish senator, the state legislature got busy making sure such a thing wouldn't happen again, as did Republican-led states across the country:

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, rather than changing their message, they are busy trying to change the rules. We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era. This is Jim Crow in new clothes.

Among the other nasties in Georgia's pending legislation would be a ban on most Sunday voting, which would bar churches' "Souls to the polls" voting drives. Warnock found that a particularly grievous attack on faith, and on faith in democracy:

I think that's wrong. In fact, I think a vote is a kind of prayer about the world we desire for ourselves and our children. And our prayers are stronger when we pray together.

Beyond that, Warnock pointed to the absurdity of some of the proposed restrictions, like banning people from giving food or water to folks waiting in long lines to vote:

Think about that. Think about that. They are the ones making the lines longer — through these draconian actions. Then, they want to make it a crime to bring grandma some water as she is waiting in line they are making longer! Make no mistake. This is democracy in reverse. Rather than voters being able to pick the politicians, the politicians are trying to cherry pick their voters. I say this cannot stand.

And that's why we need the For the People Act, which Warnock noted would prohibit such restrictions on voting and provide a common, national set of basic rules that would protect access to the polls. And we need the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would repair the damage done when the Supreme Court gutted the original 1965 law and told Congress to fix it. Voting rights, Warnock pointed out, used to be a bipartisan priority; the last renewal of the act, during the George W. Bush administration, passed 98-0 in the Senate. And even now, he said,

I submit that there should be 100 votes in this chamber for policies that will make it easier for Americans to make their voices heard in our democracy. Surely, there ought to be at least 60 people in this chamber who believe, as I do, that the four most powerful words uttered in a democracy are, 'the people have spoken,' therefore we must ensure that all the people can speak.

If not, though, the For the People and Voting Rights Acts must be passed anyway, however that can be made to happen, even if it means modifying the filibuster, which, Warnock noted, was primarily used in the last century to deny full rights for all Americans. And if that makes one party in the Senate sad, that's nothing compared to the greater loss if we don't protect voting:

It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in the society. Colleagues, no Senate rule should overrule the integrity of the democracy. [...]

And so as I close — and nobody believes a preacher when they say "as I close" — as a man of faith, I believe that democracy is a political enactment of a spiritual idea. The sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have within us a spark of the divine, to participate in the shaping of our own destiny.

Warnock recounted the sacrifices of all the men and women who gave their lives or were brutalized in winning the right to vote, and asked, given what they gave up, whether the Senate would allow mere partisanship and power plays to stymie the protection of voting rights. And as he yielded the floor, he received a standing ovation.

It was just about the most American piece of oratory you could hope to see. And to think, Sen. Warnock is only getting started.

[Raphael Warnock on Twitter / Speech transcript at Daily Kos]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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