As Americans grapple with the rise of white nationalism and divisive political rhetoric, Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, continues the tradition and legacy work of freedom and justice. Known as the “Freedom Church,” Ebenezer Baptist Church was founded in 1886, where its most famous leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served and co-pastored alongside his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., from 1960-1968, who was also the third pastor of the church.
Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s death, his commitment to freedom and advocacy for civil rights are well-documented throughout history. As chair of the New Georgia Project, Warnock works to help get community members registered to vote and have their voices heard. As the nation reflects on the life Dr. King and “MLK 50,” we spoke with Rev. Warnock, the fifth pastor of the historic church, about Dr. King and the “dream,” and a resurgence of hate that remains the central focus of what some call a new Civil Rights era.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
NBCBLK: Why is Ebenezer Baptist Church called “Freedom Church?”
Rev. Raphael G. Warnock: Ebenezer Baptist Church has always focused on the relationship between faith and freedom fighting. What not enough people know is that even as Dr. King stood bearing witness to freedom, he stood on the shoulders of Ebenezer leaders who preceded him. Dr. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., led a campaign for voting rights in Atlanta in 1935, some 30 years before the voting rights law was passed.
Dr. King is part of a long legacy of freedom fighters at Ebenezer. Rev. King, Sr. fought for the equalization of teacher salaries in the segregated school system. He encouraged his members to buy property and sat on the board of a bank. He was committed to both civil rights and political and economic empowerment.
Dr. King’s maternal grandfather, A.D. Williams, the second pastor of Ebenezer, was also a freedom fighter and one of the founders of the NAACP in the City of Atlanta.
What do you attribute to the resurgence in hate 50 years after the death of Dr. King?
Racism is America’s original sin and one of its most intractable social evils. The truth is, hate is always there because of the history of our country, because of fear, because some people have a stake in othering people who come from a different place or background.
In times of economic challenges and often when it looks like black people are making progress, the history of our nation, which is detailed quite well in a recent book by an Emory University professor [Dr. Carol Anderson] titled “White Rage,” in which she shows that in each juncture when black people have tried to make gains in education, economic strength, and in the case of [former President] Barack Obama, the ultimate prize, the White House itself, there is this fierce backlash that has occurred historically. We’ve seen this movie before; it’s just tragic to see it in the 21st century.
Barack Obama is a product of the black church. Here is a man who sat in the black church and soaked in the promise and the spirit of the preaching and the ministry and the worship that he heard Sunday after Sunday. I know that may be controversial for many because the most Americans have heard of Jeremiah Wright is a 30-second sound bite that was played over and over again to the point of ad nauseam during the election year 2008. But the truth is, Barack Obama was a part of Trinity United Church of Christ, one of the most politically active churches in our country.
In some ways, Barack Obama’s presidency cannot be understood apart from the promise and the spirit and the hope of the black church. Perhaps in ways that were shocking to most Americans who had sat in a black church on a Sunday morning. The black church has always been the conscience of the American nation. Barack Obama brilliantly brought the spirit of that to the presidency.