Though the grim spectacle of Wednesday’s near-insurrection still looms large, something else of great significance happened on January 6, 2021, too. The election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Georgia Senate undeniably shifts the political landscape of the United States. Each Senator-elect made history in their own right, but in being elected together, they made people emotional about the significance of their identities in the current — and historical — landscape.
A Black man and a Jew winning election to the US Senate in the deep south is evocative of the old civil rights alliance in a way I find … emotionally resonant.
— Adam Serwer 🍝 (@AdamSerwer) January 6, 2021
Ossoff is highly aware of this resonance, too. In the wake of his victory, while speaking of his own path to the Senate, he acknowledged the Black-Jewish civil rights alliance in the American South in a moving Twitter thread on the evening of January 7:
I humbly thank the people of Georgia, who have entrusted me with the representation of our great state in the U.S. Senate.
My team is working diligently on the transition so we can begin to deliver results immediately upon taking office.
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) January 8, 2021
“I humbly thank the people of Georgia, who have entrusted me with the representation of our great state in the U.S. Senate. My team is working diligently on the transition so we can begin to deliver results immediately upon taking office,” the thread began, before pivoting to the people who helped him get there. “This victory was built on years of hard and smart work by organizers and activists across Georgia. And was only possible thanks to the heroism of civil rights heroes like John Lewis and Amelia Boynton, who put their lives on the line decades ago fighting for voting rights.”
John Lewis’ civil rights heroism, and his role in the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, is well-known. After his death in 2020, his body made the journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge one more time, a testament to his lifetime of civil rights work. Amelia Boynton Robinson, another Georgia native, was an instrumental leader in the Selma protests and was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal in 1990. She lived to be 105, passing away in 2015.
Ossoff’s thread then took a turn to the personal, as he wrote: “Congressman Lewis was one of the most important people in my life. When we first shared a meal, many years ago, he wanted to speak with me about the importance of the alliance between Blacks and Jews in the American South.”
Racism and antisemitism have deep roots in Georgia, where Leo Frank, the first Jewish man in America to be lynched, was killed in 1915. Out of that shared marginalization grew mutual support in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when many Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, backed Martin Luther King, Jr., and many Jews joined the protests in the streets. (Sound familiar?) Though that Civil Rights alliance was more fraught than current public perception tends to admit, it did exist, and it clearly held meaning to Lewis, as it now does to Ossoff and Warnock.
In a post-election interview, Warnock echoed this sentiment, saying: “I think Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi who said, when he marched with Dr. King, he felt like his legs were praying, I think he and Dr. King are smiling in this moment.”
Warnock spoke often of the Black-Jewish Civil Rights alliance on the campaign trail. In one ad, he said, “You’ve got a young Jewish man, an African African pastor, running together with shared values, shared commitment,” over footage of Warnock and Ossoff campaigning together and 1960s newsreel items. Warnock then discussed the “Freedom Summer Murders,” the murder of three voting rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner: “As I think about it I think about Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, two Jews and an African-American who died fighting for voting rights, I think about Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel.”
And now, they didn’t just run together — they’ve won together.
Ossoff’s thread continues, “And now a Jewish man [Lewis] mentored and a Black man who was his pastor have been elected to represent the State of Georgia in the U.S. Senate. I know Congressman Lewis is looking down on us today beaming with optimism.”
Ossoff was just 16 years old when he wrote a letter to Rep. John Lewis, which led to his first volunteer position in the Congressman’s office. Ossoff also worked for another Black congressman, Hank Lewis, as his primary speechwriter.
This is not the first time Ossoff has discussed his Jewish identity; last month, he wrote a letter in the Atlanta Jewish Times addressed to the Georgian Jewish community. In it, he wrote that his “Jewish upbringing instilled in me a conviction to fight for the marginalized, the persecuted and the dispossessed.”
In the Twitter thread, Ossoff went on to acknowledge the “overwhelming support of Black voters in Georgia” and pledged to “expand justice & equality, to strengthen civil rights, to end racial disparities in health care & economic opportunity, & defend the right to vote.” Then he turned to the events of Wednesday, when “we all watched the events unfolding in our nation’s capital in horror.” We sure did.
“Even though the man who incited that insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol will soon be out of office, we have hard work to do to repair our struggling democracy, heal our wounds, & establish politics based on love for each other rather than fear, hate, and corruption,” he continued, obviously referring to Trump. “We don’t have to accept that poverty or racism or violence are inevitable or necessary. We can dream about higher and higher heights. We can dream about –– and build –– the Beloved Community that King and Lewis urged us to strive for.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned the “beloved community” as a “society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings.” John Lewis carried on this idea, acknowledging that we were still far from achieving King’s goals. In an interview with the Harvard Gazette in 2017, Lewis said, “What I think is important is that we have not yet created the ‘beloved community.’ We’re not there; we still have a distance to go. The signs that I saw growing up…that said ‘white men/colored men, white women/colored women, white boys/colored boys,’ those signs are gone. And the only place those signs today would appear and we would see them would be in a book, in a museum, or in a video. But we have these invisible signs that discriminate or put people down.”
Ossoff closed out the thread with a final message of hope, writing, “The future is bright. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for this victory.”
No, thank you, Jon Ossoff, for helping to avert one of the great crises of our time.