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Rev. Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church on Legacy of John Lewis & Ongoing Fight for Voting Rights

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We look at the life and legacy of late civil rights icon and Georgia Congressmember John Lewis, who is being mourned across the U.S. and who became the first Black politician to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. “The irony of this moment is that even as we celebrate and honor John Lewis, the patron saint of voting rights, he hailed from the state which in many instances is ground zero for voter suppression,” says Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, who serves as senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, was with Lewis in the final days of his life and will preside over his memorial service. “In recent years, voting has become increasingly a partisan issue, and there are those who are not embarrassed by making it difficult for people to vote.” Rev. Warnock is also running as a Democrat for Senate in Georgia.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we spend the rest of the hour looking at the legacy of the late civil rights icon, 17-term Georgia Congressmember John Lewis, being mourned by the nation as his body makes its way from Alabama to Washington, D.C., to Georgia, with tributes along the way to the man known as the “conscience of Congress.”

On Wednesday, Lewis will lie in state at the Georgia Capitol. On Monday, he became the first Black politician to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda, where he was honored by former colleagues, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Again, President Trump, notably absent, said he wouldn’t be attending. John Lewis’s journey home to Georgia has highlighted many hallmarks of his remarkable life, starting in Troy, Alabama, where he grew up, on Saturday, before moving on to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, where red roses were strewn on the spot where Lewis was almost beaten to death by police on that day known as Bloody Sunday, as he marched for voting rights. Monday, a motorcade carried Lewis’s coffin, stopping at the Martin Luther King Jr. and Lincoln memorials and the newly established Black Lives Matter Plaza, which Lewis visited before his death, before making its way to the Capitol. This journey ending Thursday with a private funeral at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Still with us, Reverend Raphael Warnock, who’s the senior pastor at that church, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, presiding over Thursday’s service.

Reverend Warnock, you were with John Lewis in his final days, before he died of pancreatic cancer, after his family called you to his bedside. Talk about your experiences with him then and going back for years, his significance, what he has taught you.

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Several days before John Lewis passed, I received a phone call. And it was evident to the folks who were around him that he was entering the last part of his journey. He was, again, if you will, beginning to cross a bridge. And so I made my way to his bedside. I read some scripture, expressed to him my love for him and how much I appreciate and respect what he did for all of us. And even in his weakness, he mustered the strength to say, “I love you, too, brother.” And it was just deeply moving to be with him and with his family in those moments.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Reverend Warnock, ironically, the cause for which John Lewis fought for for all his life, especially of voting rights, is now — Georgia has become a ground zero for the repression of voting rights. Could you talk somewhat about the problems, the enormous problems, of long lines and faulty voting machines and poorly trained staff of the recent primary? But also, your church is in a lawsuit around voter suppression in Georgia. Could you talk about that, as well?

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Yes, all of that is correct. The irony of this moment is that even as we celebrate and honor John Lewis, the patron saint of voting rights, he hailed from the state which in many instances is ground zero for voter suppression. We are still fighting against voter suppression in Georgia, but not only in Georgia, all across this country.

In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, which is a law, in a real sense, dipped in the blood of John Lewis and Hosea Williams and so many others who fought the good fight. And even as we celebrate him, it has not been reauthorized. The last time this bill was reauthorized, George W. Bush was president. It passed the United States Senate 96 to 0.

But in recent years voting has become increasingly a partisan issue, and there are those who are not embarrassed by making it difficult for people to vote. And so, John Lewis fought for this to the very last of his strength and breath. The reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act passed the U.S. Congress. I’m running against someone right now for the U.S. Senate who voted against it, Congressman Doug Collins. But it passed the House, made it to Mitch McConnell’s desk, and that’s where it’s sitting, on Mitch McConnell’s desk, who stood the other day and offered pious platitudes about the greatness of John Lewis, yet the bill that carries John Lewis’s blood is sitting on his desk. If he really wants to honor John Lewis, he ought to pass the bill. He ought to put it up for a vote. That’s how we honor John Lewis.

There is much conversation about changing the name of the bridge, and we ought to do that — he deserves it — but if we change the name of the bridge but people are still struggling to exercise their basic American franchise, then we’re still in trouble. And so, in this moment, in this hour, when we celebrate this great patriot who helped America to live into the fullness of its democracy, let’s reauthorize the bill, that now bears his name.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Reverend Warnock, about comments of another senator, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who’s proposed a bill that would cut federal funding to any public school that includes The New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project as part of its curriculum, the initiative named after the year enslaved Africans were first brought to North America. In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Senator Cotton refers to slavery as, quote, “a necessary evil upon which the union was built.” In response, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted, “If chattel slavery — heritable, generational, permanent, race-based slavery where it was legal to rape, torture, and sell human beings for profit — were a 'necessary evil' as Tom Cotton says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end.” Your comments on Senator Cotton — if you were to win, he would be your colleague in the Senate — Senator Cotton’s statement that slavery was a necessary evil?

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Yeah, he’s a throwback. And he represents the very kind of thing that we’re pushing against in a moment like this. Listen, there will always be voices like Tom Cotton, unfortunately. But I think what’s important for us to do in this moment is not to center what he’s saying, but to focus on how we strengthen our democracy, to amplify the covenant that we have with one another as an American people.

One of the things that inspires me about John Lewis is that he never gave in to bigotry. And he confronted it, but he also never gave in to bitterness. He walked across that bridge knowing that he would imperil his very life by standing up for democracy. He believed in American democracy more than Sheriff Jim Clark, and so he confronted him.

And in this moment, those of us who believe in what America is at its highest, who believe in the American ideal of freedom, of “one person, one vote,” those of us who believe in the dignity of our humanity and that that ought to be reflected in our public policy, which means that people ought to have access to healthcare, that children, regardless of their ZIP code, ought to have access to a quality education, and that everybody ought to be able to vote, it’s up to us to stand in this moment.

And the Tom Cottons of the world, they will be handled. I mean, one of the things you think about in this moment is, we’re celebrating John Lewis. He confronted bigots. Most of them, nobody remembers their names. Nobody remembers even the names of the clergy, the moderate clergy persons, who wrote to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and said that his actions in Birmingham were, quote, “untimely and unwise.” I guess they thought segregation was a necessary evil. But everybody talks about the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Nobody remembers who that letter was written to. You have to go up and research their names. And so, I think history redeems the conscience of people like John Lewis, who stand up, who represent love and light and liberation. And because of his deeds, he will be kindly remembered by history, and his sacrifice is etched in eternity.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Warnock, could you just give us the schedule of today and tomorrow, as John Lewis’s body is brought from Washington, D.C., where it’s laying in state, to lay in state in the Capitol in Atlanta, and then the funeral tomorrow?

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Yes. The service begins tomorrow at Ebenezer Baptist Church at 11 a.m. It is a private service in terms of attendance. Our sanctuary holds about 2,000 people. Because of social distancing, we’ll have about a tenth of the capacity of the church, because if Black lives matter, then we have to preserve lives at all costs. John Lewis would want us to do the same. But the service will be covered live by the media and live-streamed on the Ebenezer website,

So, we won’t all be in the same room, but we will all be together in spirit as we celebrate this great man, but, more importantly, as we press past this moment and reconsider the work to which he dedicated his life. Tomorrow, we weep, as we should. But the day after tomorrow, we stand up, and we work for voting rights, for human dignity, for healthcare, for education for all of our children. That’s the work to which John Lewis dedicated his whole life. And if we owe him a debt of service and gratitude, we do that by standing up for the best of us, the best in the human spirit, the best in the American spirit, in a moment like this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock serves as senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which was the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He’s running as a Democrat for Senate in Georgia, and he’ll be presiding over Thursday’s funeral for Congressmember John Lewis.

When we come back, civil rights legend Bernard Lafayette, longtime friend of John Lewis. The two helped start SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He’ll talk about the Freedom Rides.


AMY GOODMAN: “We Shall Overcome” by Guy Carawan, The Montgomery Gospel Trio and The Nashville Quartet, from a collection of songs of Freedom Riders and sit-ins.

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Civil Rights Icon Bernard Lafayette on His Friend John Lewis, Freedom Rides & Practicing Nonviolence

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