Though the Rev. Raphael Warnock has a busy schedule, including things such as the Good Neighbor Program, the Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor makes time to talk about ending mass incarceration in the United States. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

From slavery to mass incarceration?

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? — Micah 6:8 KJV

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock has had a busy couple of weeks.

After co-hosting and delivering the opening sermon at a conference on ending mass incarceration in the United States, he was off to the American Baptist Churches USA Biennial Mission Summit in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he led two workshops on the same topic.

And less than 24 hours later, he was back at Ebenezer to preach his weekend services and for the 45th annual scholarship concert honoring the memory of the late Alberta Christine Williams King, affectionately known as “Mama King,” who was assassinated there 45 years ago.

On this Monday morning, he was tired and hungry, and so you might wonder why as a father of two young children and a church pastor, he’d take on the role of social activist as well.

His answer: He has no other choice.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


This is the second of a five-part series analyzing race and religion by AJC columnist Gracie Bonds Staples. Come back Monday for Part 3: Racism: Stupidity, stoicism or sin?

Black churches were born out of political and social resistance, with enslaved African Americans organizing around a theology that God would deliver them from their oppressors. Slavery may have ended, but racism has simply reinvented itself.

Enslaved, beaten and lynched black bodies are now handcuffed, shot while driving and probated black bodies but never emancipated black bodies, according to Warnock.

>> RELATED: Pushing America to face its racist past

It was why, in the midst of an already busy schedule, he was willing to indulge my questions about present-day systemic racism and why it is the responsibility of the church to fight against it.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock greets participants during the Good Neighbor Program at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 18, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The question had been weighing on me for a very long time, and led me to embark on this series, to seek answers and, perhaps solutions, from Warnock and other church leaders.

Was there an honest answer? And more importantly, were we capable of ever changing, of letting go of our fears and loving each other as Christ loves the church?

The son of Pentecostal pastors, Warnock came of age during the late ’70s and early ’80s, when efforts to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday were just beginning and parents pulled their children out of school for community-led teach-ins.

“I’d spend the entire day learning about King at the local YMCA,” Warnock recalled. “As I grew up and it became clear to me that I would go into ministry, King’s ability to move people across racial and economic lines with an appeal to our common humanity appealed to me.”

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, sees the issue of mass incarceration as the struggle for America’s soul. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

While King loomed large in his imagination, Warnock’s father, the Rev. Jonathan Warnock, was an ever-present example of what it meant to be not only black in America but a black pastor. He recalled a story his father, a small businessman, told him about being forced, even while dressed in his soldier’s uniform, to give up his bus seat to a white teenager.

“As an adult, I have great appreciation for the way he had to negotiate that and so many other instances of humiliation and manage somehow to hold onto this sense of dignity, while also refusing to be bitter,” Warnock said. “He refused to give in to a sense of inferiority and hatred, and he stood every morning in that little church he served and preached about God’s love and redemption for all of God’s children.”

Like the God he preached about, the junkman could see the value and worth not only in scrap metal but ordinary people.

And his son, in turn, saw what a preacher should be — an activist in the pulpit and the community.

>> RELATED: Was Chaplain Conroy really canned for praying for the poor?

For Warnock, that has meant confronting the systemic racism he sees, especially the mass incarceration of brown, black and poor people.

He points first to the 2013 Supreme Court decision that effectively struck down the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, freeing nine, mostly Southern states to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock (left) takes a selfie with program participant Stephanie Morley during the Good Neighbor Program at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 18, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Once the protection of the Voting Rights Act was removed,” Warnock said, “we saw a battery of states and municipalities take full advantage of that through the closing of polls, racial gerrymandering, voter purges and a whole range of voter suppression tactics. The goal might have been political, but the methodology was decidedly racial.”

What does that have to do with mass incarceration?

That’s easy.

There are 2.3 million people in prison, and millions more on parole or probation. For anyone leaving prison, job discrimination is legal, housing discrimination is legal, and yes, voting discrimination is legal.

That’s one thing.

Here’s another: Blacks and whites use and sell drugs at about the same rate yet African Americans make up over 50% of the prison population, and most are there for nonviolent drug-related offenses.

As long as the bodies were black, the drug was crack and the terrain was Baltimore, South Central L.A., East St. Louis, Detroit and southwest Atlanta, we had a war on drugs. When the face of the problem became suburban and white and the drugs were meth and opioids, it was a public health epidemic.

Rev. Raphael Warnock at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2018.

“When you have a war, you have enemy combatants and prisoners of war,” Warnock said. “Public health epidemics are addressed through clinics with doctors attending to patients.”

>> RELATED: Living while black

Warnock doesn’t view mass incarceration as just one more manifestation of racism in America. He sees it as the struggle for America’s soul.

“It’s an ideology that operates by its own logic,” he said. “A logic that has poisoned the atmosphere of a country that now, in too many instances, views blackness through the lens of criminality and suffocates even law-abiding citizens. Traffic stops become deadly, and black children, who play by all the rules and manage to end up at Yale University, can’t sleep in their own dorms without being subjected to the twisted logic that polices black bodies in the public space.”

So what should be the church’s role?

>> RELATED: Local historian on poverty and privilege

Warnock began with this: Nearly every politician is sitting in some church on Sunday.

“The problem is that ministers in most American pulpits have been silent on issues of justice, relegating such concerns to the realm of politics,” he said. “It’s a truncated logic that says these are social issues and ministers are to deal with issues of faith. The Bible clearly says otherwise.”

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, speaks during the last Sunday church service of the year on December 30, 2018. Former President Jimmy Carter, wife Rosalynn and more than 40 members of their family attended the service. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

For proof, he points to the books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Esther, and Jesus’ first sermon in which he quotes Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners …”

“I think people of faith, who have moral courage, have to stand up to mass incarceration in the 21st century the way people of faith stood up to slavery in the 19th century through the abolitionist movement and Jim Crow segregation,” Warnock said. “This is our challenge. This is our time. This is our movement.”

The problem, Warnock said, is we’re not always motivated to see things differently.

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality might feel like oppression.”

Still Warnock is hopeful.

“Time and time again when I look at the broad sweeping arc of the American experiment, we’ve had expansions of freedom and we’ve had contractions. Right now, we’re going through a contraction. But the most violent contractions come before birth,” he said. “So, when I think about … the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the movement that created the American Disabilities Act, I’m still holding out, hoping against hope for the birth of an even better America. A more perfect union.”

But it won’t just happen.

He said, “We have to bend the arc in the direction of freedom and equality for all people.”

Part 3: Racism: Stupidity, stoicism or sin?

Find Gracie on Facebook ( and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at

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