When Michael Thurmond ran to become Georgia’s labor commissioner in 1998, he received a warning from a fellow Democrat: Don’t run.
We already have one Black man on the Democratic ticket, Thurmond recounts being told. Two would jeopardize the party’s chances.
Thurmond stayed in the race. But when he ran ads in some rural parts of the state, he intentionally omitted his picture.
That November, Thurmond and Attorney General Thurbert Baker obliterated a milestone, becoming the first two African Americans elected to statewide nonjudicial offices in Georgia.
“I guess two Black men wasn’t too much after all,” he said with a chuckle.
Now, more than 20 years later, two different Black men are making history. For the first time in modern Georgia history — and among only a small handful of times in American history — voters have nominated two Black candidates for the U.S. Senate.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker hold opposing political views on just about everything. But they also have a lot in common.
Both were born into poverty far from metro Atlanta, and both are devout Christians.
They are also two of the most recognizable Black men in the state — Walker because of his legendary exploits playing football “between the hedges” at the University of Georgia and Warnock in the pulpit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
But each wears his Blackness in different ways, which will be parsed and tested as the nationally watched race gathers steam. How Georgia voters respond could help determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
They face different electoral challenges.
Warnock must energize Black voters, critical to any Democrat running in the state, while also appealing to whites who make up more than half of the state’s registered voters.
Walker needs to turn out white Republicans, especially white evangelical voters who make up the GOP base and who have rarely, if ever, voted for a Black candidate. At the same time, he is hoping to move some Black voters into his column.
A new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows almost 85% of Black voters would back Warnock, while about 58% of white voters would support Walker.
‘It meant something’
Warnock had just finished giving a pre-Independence Day speech at the Cobb County Democrats’ annual Herb Butler BBQ when it was time for the grip and grins.
Dressed in Levi’s and a casual dress shirt, he smiled and shook hands as a line of supporters waited to get their photo taken with a U.S. senator.
When it was Deyson Johnson’s turn, the 24-year-old quietly walked in front of Warnock to find his position. Warnock stopped him and looked at his massive Afro and the black Afro pic — complete with the Black power fist — jutting out of his hair.
“Let me see that,” demanded Warnock, whose own clean-shaven head is another subtle symbol of Black pride. “What do you know about this?”
Johnson laughed, carefully placed the pic back in his head and smiled for the picture.
“That was really powerful,” Johnson said. “When I started growing my hair in middle school, a lot of teachers would think I was gang-affiliated or a ne’er-do-well. Now, to have it be recognized by a sitting senator is beautiful and fulfilling. It was a small gesture, but it meant something.”
Warnock, a graduate of Morehouse College and a member of the oldest Black fraternity in America, has been a longtime champion of civil rights and blends faith and activism in a way that feels familiar.
He has risen through the power structure of Black theology and churches to occupy perhaps the most famous pulpit in America.
In his new book, “A Way Out of No Way,” Warnock described how his eyes were opened to institutional racism when his older brother, Savannah police officer Keith Coleman, was arrested in an FBI sting and charged with aiding and abetting cocaine distribution by providing security for drug dealers.
Warnock wrote that he didn’t excuse his brother’s behavior. But he said his anger at his brother “was matched by my anger at the criminal justice system.”
His brother had been lured by the sting operation, and a federal judge sentenced the first-time offender to life in prison for a drug crime.
“It seemed clear to me that the federal government had taken full advantage of a rookie cop who used very bad judgment,” Warnock wrote. “And no matter what my brother’s role might have been, he deserved fair treatment in a system with a long history of racism.”
Warnock has emerged as one of the Senate’s leading voices on matters of race, particularly voting rights. At the same time, his campaign is focused sharply on kitchen table issues. Look at his Twitter feed and you see post after post about the need to control insulin costs, tackle inflation and lower gas prices.
Warnock will almost certainly win the majority of the Black vote; African Americans still overwhelmingly support Democrats. To win the election, he needs to reenergize the multiracial coalition that helped lift him to victory in a 2021 Senate runoff.
‘It doesn’t matter what color you are’
In North Georgia, Walker appeared on a terrace overlooking gentle slopes studded with fledgling grape vines.
Walker warmed up the crowd with a familiar story about his childhood as the “Black kid from Wrightsville, Georgia.”
But when he talked about race, he delivered a very different message than Warnock’s, arguing that Democratic politicians have enabled racism by “trying to separate us through the color of your skin.”
Walker noted that the first Black football player had already taken the field at UGA, which once banned Black students, before he arrived in 1980.
“That means we’ve come a long ways,” he said. “Do we have a little ways to go? Yes, we do. But is it because of the color of people’s skin? No it’s not. It doesn’t matter what color you are. What matters is if you are willing to work and pay the price.”
“We love you Herschel!” came a voice from the back.
Walker’s message of personal responsibility has long been a hallmark of his public persona. Critics say he has rarely used his prominent voice to advocate for civil rights. And when it has happened, it has been tempered.
The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery angered Walker, he said in a June 2020 video posted on his Instragram account. But he said he was saddened by the scenes of people rioting and looting in what were supposed to be peaceful protests.
In his 2008 memoir “Breaking Free,” Walker described an incident during his junior year at Johnson County High School when an African American classmate clashed with the principal, who was white. Walker refused to side with Black students who said the principal had belittled the student with a racially charged remark.
“I could never really be fully accepted by white students and the African-American students either resented me or distrusted me for what they perceived as my failure to stand united with them — regardless of whether they were right or wrong,” he wrote.
That separation, he said, would continue throughout his life.
Adrienne Jones, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College and an expert on voting, said she doesn’t see Walker appealing to large numbers of Black voters. But he might make inroads with one group.
“Black male voters are not as strongly Democratic as they were in the past,” Jones said.
One of them is firefighter Tracy Taylor, Republican Party chairman in Dougherty County, who is supporting Walker.
“You don’t have to be locked into the Democratic Party because your grandfather or grandmother voted Democrat all their life,” said Taylor, who is running for a state House seat. “I think where we are right now, especially with the economy the way it is right now, you can have an alterative.”
Credit: Christina Matacotta
Credit: Christina Matacotta
‘Democrats have overplayed their hand’
That Georgia Republicans nominated a Black man to run for one of the most prominent elected offices in the state is no accident.
They have been working for some time to break the Democratic Party’s near monopoly on Black voters. Walker was one of three African American candidates in the Republican Senate primary. And in congressional districts, two other Black candidates made it to runoffs this year.
“To the Georgia (Republican) party’s credit there have been African Americans who have played pretty prominent roles in the party,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University who has written about the intersection of race and politics. “Blacks have not been absent in Georgia Republican Party politics as they have been in some other states.”
Some of that is a matter of arithmetic. African Americans make up roughly one-third of Georgia’s population. And the minority population continues to grow.
Last fall, the Republican National Committee set up an outreach center in College Park aimed at reaching out to Black voters. Walker paid a visit to the College Park center to mark Juneteenth.
Republican state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia of Douglas, who attended a Walker rally in Ocilla, praised those efforts to broaden the reach of his party, which is still predominantly white.
“As a lifelong conservative Republican, I have hoped for, and prayed, for someone in the Black community to wake up and say, ‘You know what? the Democrats have overplayed their hand,’ ” said La Riccia, who is not seeking reelection this year. “There’s a lot of minorities in this country — men, women, Black, Latino, Asian — that have a strong faith and strong conservative values.”
‘Skinfolk ain’t kinfolk’
Still, GOP outreach efforts have yet to translate into a sizable number of Blacks voting Republican. In the 2020 presidential race, 88% of Black voters cast a ballot for Democrat Joe Biden.
In that same race, when Georgia made Warnock just the second Black senator from the South since Reconstruction, he won 92% of the Black vote against incumbent Kelly Loeffler, according to exit polls.
Some Black voters say the GOP putting forward a Black candidate doesn’t mean much if their policies don’t work for Black voters.
“They can’t get it through their heads that we have demands,” said Soncearee Hudson, who lives in Fayette County. “We can’t afford to be one-issue voters, so just having someone who looks like you don’t mean anything. Skinfolk ain’t kinfolks.”
Many will be watching to see whether whites will vote for a Black candidate with the same enthusiasm they have for white candidates in the past. Democrat Stacey Abrams outperformed both Jason Carter and Roy Barnes on the Democratic side, suggesting the state has made progress.
But Thurmond, who won that first race back in 1998, remains skeptical.
He said most of the state’s current constitutional officers are white men, and he noted Warnock’s election last year was the first time the state had sent a Black man to the Senate. Rural parts of the state — which are heavily white — are still a challenge.
Said Thurmond, “The water is still cold and deep outside of I-285.”