Senator Raphael Warnock gave his first speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday. The subject? Voting rights.
“We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era,” Warnock said, pointing to a wave of bills that limit voting in Republican-controlled states like Arizona and his own Georgia. “This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”
He went on:
Politicians in my home state and all across America, in their craven lust for power, have launched a full-fledged assault on voting rights. They are focused on winning at any cost, even the cost of the democracy itself. I submit that it is the job of each citizen to stand up for the voting rights of every citizen. And it is the job of this body to do all that it can to defend the viability of our democracy.
To that end, Warnock argued, the Senate should pass the For the People Act, which would establish automatic voter registration nationally, provide for at least two weeks of early voting and preserve mail-in balloting, as well as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore pre-clearance to the Voting Rights Act, forcing covered jurisdictions to submit new voting plans for federal approval.
While these bills are important — I’ve written about them before — I want to set them aside, for now, to focus on the fact of the speech itself. Warnock is the first African-American to represent Georgia in the Senate and only the second elected from the South since Reconstruction. His presence on the Senate floor is historic just on its own. It represents progress — and yet it is also evocative of the past.
A Black lawmaker from the South, urging his mostly white colleagues to defend the voting rights of millions of Americans is, to my mind, an occasion to revisit one particular episode in the history of American democracy: the fight, in Congress, over the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The first Black members of the House of Representatives, some of them former slaves, were prominent in this battle. They saw the bill as vital in the fight against discrimination and race hierarchy. Their arguments still resonate in our own time and found echoes in the Rev. Dr. Warnock’s speech.