WATCH: “We have been summoned here by history…this is a moral moment in America”: Senator Reverend Warnock Urges Senate Colleagues to Protect the Sacred Right to Vote to Make Continued Progress for Georgia, America

“The American people have sent us here and history has summoned us to this moment. We cannot hide. Whatever the outcome tonight, I still believe in us. I believe in the U.S. I believe in us.”

1.19 Senator Warnock Delivers Voting Rights Floor Speech


Washington, D.C. – Last night, as the Senate worked to advance the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) spoke on the Senate floor about the future of the fight to preserve voting rights in Congress and beyond, and the importance of the federal government taking action to protect every eligible voter’s access to the ballot in Georgia and nationwide to make it possible for voters to make progress on strengthening health care, creating jobs, addressing climate change, and more. Senate Republicans blocked the Senate from voting to end debate on the legislation, preventing it from advancing.

Key excerpts from Senator Reverend Warnock’s floor remarks:

“We cannot hide from history. January 6th happened, but here’s the thing—January 5th also happened. Georgia, a state in the old confederacy, sent a Black man and a Jewish man to the Senate in one fell swoop. Our nation has always had a complicated history, and I submit to you that here’s where we are—we’re swinging from a moral dilemma. We are caught somewhere between January 5th and January 6th. Between our hopes and our fears. Between bigotry and Beloved Community. And in each moment, we the people have to decide which way are we going to go, and what are we willing to sacrifice in order to get there? The question today is are we going to give in to a violent attack, whose aim is now being pursued through partisan voter suppression laws in state legislatures?”

“And so here’s the question tonight: America, are we January 5th, or are we January 6th? Are we going to give in to the forces that seek to divide us by gerrymandering us, suppressing us, and subverting the voices of some of us in pursuit of power at any cost, or are we going to live up to that grand American covenant, E pluribus Unum? Out of many—one. I choose what Dr. King called Beloved Community. I choose America. I choose a nation that embraces all of us.”

“I believe in bipartisanship. But when it comes to something as fundamental as voting rights, I just have to ask, bipartisanship at what cost? Who is being asked to foot the bill for this bipartisanship, and is liberty itself the cost? I submit that that’s a cost too high, and a bridge too far.”

“I’m deeply saddened that our Republican colleagues chose not to join us in this effort. Democrats would prefer not to act alone. But by all means, we have to act. Even if we don’t get it done tonight, we have to keep working at it until we get it done. Dr. King’s words are as true now as they were back then, “history has thrust something upon me from which I cannot turn away.” He said, “justice delayed is justice denied.” Now, I know that I’ve been speaking a lot over the course of the last year about voting rights, and it is one of my primary passions. But I’m thrilled to work for Georgians—to close the Medicaid coverage gap in our state; to create new, good-paying jobs in growing and emerging industries; to strengthen broadband across our state; and more. I’m thrilled to fight for these priorities for Georgia, because that’s what Georgians sent me here to do—but they sent me with their votes. But how can we have productive conversations about the many issues affecting the American people—about lowering health care costs, about creating good-paying jobs, about fighting climate change, protecting reproductive health care—if politicians in states get to cherry-pick their voters? And the people’s voices are squeezed out of their democracy? How can we achieve real consensus on the issues that matter most if only some voters can be heard? Taking action to pass voting rights legislation is not a policy argument. It is about the democracy itself. Voting rights is how we address the deepening divides in our country, by ensuring every eligible voter’s voice is heard. And we as elected representatives have an obligation to protect their voice.”

“[S]ome point to Senate procedure while others recycle excuses we’ve heard before. But as the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, I also know that all of these arguments calling against the moral action we’re called to take are distractions. Consider this—there are some things you can do in this chamber with just 51 votes. Confirm a Supreme Court nominee? 51. Pass trillions of dollars in investments for our communities? 51. Pass massive tax cuts mainly for the richest of the rich? 51. Confirm cabinet nominees? 51. Raise the debt ceiling? We found a way to do it the other week—51. But it takes 60 votes to repair the ceiling of our democracy by passing voting rights legislation. I’m left to conclude that if the issue is important enough, the Senate feels compelled to act. Well let me say that I believe that the democracy is at least as important as the economy.”

“Recently many of our colleagues have argued that legislation to protect voting rights somehow offends our federal system of government and amounts, they say, to a federal takeover of elections. Some of the same voices, ironically, who have extolled Dr. King’s life this week have at the same time been working vigorously against the legislation we’re debating today to protect the right to vote, and many of them have been channeling old states’ rights arguments.  Let the message go out: you cannot remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and dismember his legacy at the same time. You can argue whatever side you want, but you do not get to argue both sides. I will not sit quietly while some make Dr. King a victim of identity theft. You do not get to offer praises and plaudits in memory of Dr. King, and then marshal the same kinds of states’ rights arguments that were used against Dr. King and against the civil rights movement.”

“I want to appeal to all of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle—not just as a colleague, but as a pastor and as a man of faith. The American people have sent us here and history has summoned us to this moment. We cannot hide. Whatever the outcome tonight, I still believe in us. I believe in the U.S. I believe in us.”

“History is watching us. Our children are counting on us. And I hope that we will have the courage to do what is right for our communities and for our country—the courage to cross this bridge, to do the hard work in this defining moral moment in America for the sake of the communities that sent us here in the first place, for the sake of the planet, for the sake of health care, for the sake of jobs, for the sake of being able to argue for the things that we care about. The courage to fight for one another. I’m still praying that we will cross that bridge. But if not tonight, we will come back again and again and again.” 

Full transcript of Senator Reverend Warnock’s floor remarks below:

“Thank you, Madam Vice President. 

“We have been summoned here by history. This is not just another routine day in the Senate—this is a moral moment in America. And I recall the words of that great American patriot and prophet, Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday all of us just observed.

“As he agonized over the difficulty and complexity of that moral moment, Dr. King said “history has thrust something upon me from which I cannot turn away.” We have been summoned here. All of us. We cannot turn away. 

“And this is no time for politics as usual. The times cry out for moral leadership, for integrity, for empathy and for care for one another; for deep investment in the covenant that we have with one another as an American people. E pluribus Unum—out of many, one. What a grand doctrine, what a noble idea which our country has been driving to reach with fits and starts—with setbacks and comebacks—since the day of its founding. 

“This is one of those moments. We cannot turn away. We cannot hide from history. And I am truly honored to stand here with all of you—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—in this moment, and on this, my 365th day, as a member of the United States Senate. The most conventional deliberative body on the planet, striving again for greatness. 

“I was elected from Georgia on January 5. What an honor to represent the people of the state of Georgia, and what a great nation. A kid from the Kayton homes housing projects; the first college graduate in my family of 12 (my folks were both preachers; they read the scriptures, “be fruitful and multiply”). But this kid who grew up in poverty, now serving in the United States Senate. Only the 11th Black senator in the whole history of our nation. And during that same time Georgia also elected its first Jewish senator, my brother Jon Ossoff. I believe somewhere Dr. Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel are smiling because they marched together. Rabbi Heschel said that when he marched with Dr. King, he felt like his legs were praying. 

“And so, what a moment. I won after a hard-fought election. And the next morning, I was feeling pretty good. My mother, who grew up in Waycross, Georgia, picking cotton as a teenager, had joined with other Georgians in record voter turnout, and the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton helped to pick her youngest son to be a U.S. Senator. Only in America is my story even possible. 

“I was on several of the morning shows talking about what the people of Georgia had achieved, and I was feeling pretty good that morning. Man, I was on “The View” talking to Whoopi Goldberg. But by lunchtime the news alerts on my phone began to buzz. Something was happening in the Capitol, and we all know the rest of that sad and tragic story. A violent assault on our nation’s Capitol, driven by The Big Lie. Ugly words, signs and symbols of racism and antisemitism. An effort to stop the legal certification of an election. And in spite of those who want to hide, sadly, January 6 really did happen. And we must face up to it. 

“We cannot hide from history. January 6th happened, but here’s the thing—January 5th also happened. Georgia, a state in the old confederacy, sent a Black man and a Jewish man to the Senate in one fell swoop. Our nation has always had a complicated history, and I submit to you that here’s where we are—we’re swinging from a moral dilemma. We are caught somewhere between January 5th and January 6th. Between our hopes and our fears. Between bigotry and Beloved Community. And in each moment, we the people have to decide which way are we going to go, and what are we willing to sacrifice in order to get there? The question today is are we going to give in to a violent attack, whose aim is now being pursued through partisan voter suppression laws in state legislatures? 

“Sadly, Georgia, the same Georgia that sent me and my brother Ossoff to the Senate—not the people of Georgia, partisan state politicians—have decided to punish their own citizens for having the audacity to show up. And it isn’t just about the restrictions around water and food distribution. The more fundamental question is, why are the lines so long in the first place? And why is that the case in certain communities? 

“I know that some Americans listening to me right now don’t know what we mean, because that’s not your experience. But it is the experience of so many of your fellow Americans. We need empathy, compassion, care for one another. Why are local election officials working in Lincoln County, Georgia, to close all but one polling location for a county that’s bigger than 250 square miles? Why is the second most powerful legislator in the Georgia State Senate working right now to pass legislation to eliminate all ballot drop boxes in Georgia in the middle of a pandemic? Why are state leaders in Georgia right now working to take over the local elections board in Fulton County, where Ebenezer Baptist Church sits? 

“There’s a woman in Cobb County named Irish. She said she’s tried repeatedly over the past ten years to vote, but could not because of long lines and changing polling locations; people playing games. She said that she has often had to decide if she will work or vote. 

“Another woman, Varana, from Cobb County, says she waited in line for eight hours in the rain at her local library—eight hours to vote! I run into constituents all the time who tell me that they waited for hours to vote for me. I’m honored that they voted for me, but I’m sad that they should have to wait for eight hours. 

“A student in Atlanta named Isabella says that she and many of her friends who could not vote in the November 2020 election because they did not want to skip class to stand in line. Why are state leaders in Georgia behaving as if giving voters these awful choices is normal, or that voters like these Georgians don’t exist? Those are the facts of the laws that are being passed in Georgia and across our nation. 

“And so here’s the question tonight: America, are we January 5th, or are we January 6th? Are we going to give in to the forces that seek to divide us by gerrymandering us, suppressing us, and subverting the voices of some of us in pursuit of power at any cost, or are we going to live up to that grand American covenant, E pluribus Unum? Out of many—one. I choose what Dr. King called Beloved Community. I choose America. I choose a nation that embraces all of us. 

“We’ve been summoned here. We cannot turn away. And in just a few moments, all 100 of us, blessed with a sacred trust, will let the American people know where we stand on the question of whether the Senate will protect their voices, the voices of the very people who sent us here—or if we will simply surrender to the anti-democratic fervor and polarizing disunity spreading across our nation. 

“In the meantime, let me say that I am glad that we are finally actually having a debate on the Senate floor! Imagine that. The Senate—what is that, the most important deliberative body—is actually having a debate. 

“It took us nearly a year to get to this point, and I want to thank my colleagues who worked with me and others over the last many months to keep this critical issue on the Senate’s front burner. Voting rights are preservative of all other rights. The democracy is the framework in which all other debates take place. We can strengthen our infrastructure and the infrastructure of our democracy at the same time. If we can change the rules to raise the debt ceiling, we can change the rules to raise and repair the ceiling of our democracy. This is our work!

“And so we have crafted a strong piece of compromise legislation that will address the rampant voter suppression and election subversion laws we’re seeing passed in state after state after state—19 so far, and counting. 

“The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act will restore bedrock voting protections established by the Voting Rights Act of 1965—protections that have been eroded by the Supreme Court, and are born from an era where members of this body used to work together to solve the tough issues of our time. It will also set a federal baseline for voting standards to ensure every eligible voter has access to the ballot, no matter where they live, and to protect elections from subversion by craven politicians. 

“Voting rights should be bipartisan; used to be bipartisan. Passed this body the last time 98-0, signed into law by George W. Bush, a Republican president. 

“And I know that my colleagues and I have worked in good faith this past year, this entire year. We have worked hard to try and find some common ground with our Republican friends on this issue. I’ve said to my colleagues, let us bring these measures to the floor to debate. Let’s reason. Let’s deliberate. And I had hoped our friends on the other side would have allowed us to have a debate on voting rights legislation, but until today that’s what they blocked three times in the Senate. They didn’t block the bills, they blocked our ability to even have a debate on the bills. 

“As a pastor I understand the power and the possibility of coming together with those with whom we disagree; to have a robust debate on the issues that are important to families and to our country. I share with many of you, I’m sure, a vision of the Senate that collaborates and negotiates on the most important issues of our time. 

“I believe in bipartisanship. But when it comes to something as fundamental as voting rights, I just have to ask, bipartisanship at what cost? Who is being asked to foot the bill for this bipartisanship, and is liberty itself the cost? I submit that that’s a cost too high, and a bridge too far. 

“I’m deeply saddened that our Republican colleagues chose not to join us in this effort. Democrats would prefer not to act alone. But by all means, we have to act. Even if we don’t get it done tonight, we have to keep working at it until we get it done. Dr. King’s words are as true now as they were back then, “history has thrust something upon me from which I cannot turn away.” He said, “justice delayed is justice denied.” Now, I know that I’ve been speaking a lot over the course of the last year about voting rights, and it is one of my primary passions. But I’m thrilled to work for Georgians—to close the Medicaid coverage gap in our state; to create new, good-paying jobs in growing and emerging industries; to strengthen broadband across our state; and more. I’m thrilled to fight for these priorities for Georgia, because that’s what Georgians sent me here to do—but they sent me with their votes. 

“But how can we have productive conversations about the many issues affecting the American people—about lowering health care costs, about creating good-paying jobs, about fighting climate change, protecting reproductive health care—if politicians in states get to cherry-pick their voters? And the people’s voices are squeezed out of their democracy? How can we achieve real consensus on the issues that matter most if only some voters can be heard? Taking action to pass voting rights legislation is not a policy argument. It is about the democracy itself. Voting rights is how we address the deepening divides in our country, by ensuring every eligible voter’s voice is heard. And we as elected representatives have an obligation to protect their voice. 

“So when it comes to the question of procedure, and the filibuster, let me be clear: I believe that voting rights are more important than a procedural rule, and if taking action requires a change in the rules, then it is time to change the rules. When the times changed, we have always changed the rules—160 times. And as we consider the filibuster, the name of the Senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, inevitably comes up. His is an important perspective. But we shouldn’t quote him as if he is scripture. In fact, he didn’t always get it right. He said his greatest regret was filibustering the 1964 civil rights bill. Robert Byrd learned from history. Will we? 

“Now, Madam President, as I continue on what may feel like a filibuster, some point to Senate procedure while others recycle excuses we’ve heard before. But as the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, I also know that all of these arguments calling against the moral action we’re called to take are distractions. 

“Consider this—there are some things you can do in this chamber with just 51 votes. Confirm a Supreme Court nominee? 51. Pass trillions of dollars in investments for our communities? 51. Pass massive tax cuts mainly for the richest of the rich? 51. Confirm cabinet nominees? 51. Raise the debt ceiling? We found a way to do it the other week—51. But it takes 60 votes to repair the ceiling of our democracy by passing voting rights legislation. I’m left to conclude that if the issue is important enough, the Senate feels compelled to act. Well let me say that I believe that the democracy is at least as important as the economy. 

“Recently many of our colleagues have argued that legislation to protect voting rights somehow offends our federal system of government and amounts, they say, to a federal takeover of elections. Some of the same voices, ironically, who have extolled Dr. King’s life this week have at the same time been working vigorously against the legislation we’re debating today to protect the right to vote, and many of them have been channeling old states’ rights arguments. 

“Let the message go out: you cannot remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and dismember his legacy at the same time. You can argue whatever side you want, but you do not get to argue both sides. I will not sit quietly while some make Dr. King a victim of identity theft. You do not get to offer praises and plaudits in memory of Dr. King, and then marshal the same kinds of states’ rights arguments that were used against Dr. King and against the civil rights movement. 

“Please know that as the pastor of Dr. King’s church, this argument evokes, I say really respectfully, it evokes some of the darkest moments in our country’s longest, long struggle for equality. When the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, after a century of Jim Crow laws, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus did not argue that he supported segregation at all costs. He instead claimed that obeying the Brown decision amounted to a [QUOTE] “surrender” of “all our rights,” he said, “as citizens to an all-powerful federal autocracy.” 

“When U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond launched the longest filibuster in the history of the United States against a bill to protect voting rights, he didn’t argue explicitly that Black people didn’t deserve to vote. He instead claimed it was, QUOTE, “unlawful and unconstitutional” for Congress to regulate the elections of the states. 

“And during the Senate’s 60-day debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the closing argument of the bill’s opponents—led and articulated by Georgia Senator Richard B. Russell—was that it would, QUOTE, “strike down and destroy many rights and powers which since the foundation of our government have properly belonged to several states.”

“Let’s be very clear about this legislation, the states will continue to administer their elections. And of course states have certain rights. But do we genuinely believe that states have a right to discriminate, to suppress, or to block access to ballot boxes for so many Americans? 

“Although we have 50 unique states, we’re also united as one republic. And what happens in one state can affect us all. When we elect our U.S. Senators and our U.S. Representatives and when we elect the President, we must represent all Americans. We need every vote to count to maintain the integrity of our democracy. And so we must do this work. 

“I support reforming the Electoral Count Act. That said, reforming the Electoral Count Act will do virtually nothing to address the sweeping voter suppression and election subversion efforts taking place in Georgia and in states and localities nationwide. It doesn’t matter if your votes are properly counted if you cannot cast your vote in the first place. 

“And so as I close, I want to appeal to all of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle—not just as a colleague, but as a pastor and as a man of faith. The American people have sent us here and history has summoned us to this moment. We cannot hide. Whatever the outcome tonight, I still believe in us. I believe in the U.S. I believe in us. I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea, that we are all children of god, and therefore we all ought to have a voice in the direction of our country and our destiny within it. I believe that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire, for ourselves and for our children, and that our prayers are stronger when we pray together. 

“And so a young Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled all those years ago, and he said, “history has thrust something upon me from which I cannot turn away.” Those of us who are students of Dr. King—I know I have often wondered what would I have done if I were alive during the civil rights movement? I know we would all like to think that we, too, would have had just a small fraction, just a fraction of the courage that it took for John Lewis to cross that Edmund Pettus Bridge. Well, for those of us who are fortunate enough to serve in the United States Senate in this moment, in this moral moment, we do not have to wonder. My God, he faced troopers on the other side crossing that bridge. We’re talking about a procedural bridge. We don’t have to wonder what we would have done. I submit that what we would have done back then, we are doing right now. 

“History is watching us. Our children are counting on us. And I hope that we will have the courage to do what is right for our communities and for our country—the courage to cross this bridge, to do the hard work in this defining moral moment in America for the sake of the communities that sent us here in the first place, for the sake of the planet, for the sake of health care, for the sake of jobs, for the sake of being able to argue for the things that we care about. The courage to fight for one another. 

“I’m still praying that we will cross that bridge. But if not tonight, we will come back again and again and again. Madam Vice President, I yield the floor.”