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What The Civil Rights Movement Of The '60s Can Teach Atlanta Protesters Now

The. Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, speaks at a January 2019 service to remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.
Paras Griffin
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The. Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, speaks at a January 2019 service to remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was behind the pulpit in Atlanta in 1967, the year before he was killed, when he told churchgoers at Ebenezer Baptist Church that sometimes there is an "obligation" to break certain man-made laws.

"It is important to see that there are times when a man-made law is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe, there are times when human law is out of harmony with eternal and divine laws," the civil rights leader said at the time. "And when that happens, you have an obligation to break it."

More than 50 years after his death, King's words still carry visceral power, and they've taken on renewed significance throughout the demonstrations across the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd. On Sunday, King's successor at Ebenezer Baptist, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, delivered his own sermon with a similar message.

"For folk who claim to be godly, for church folk, for preachers who darken somebody's pulpit every weekend to be silent while this is happening, it is not only to be on the wrong side of history," Warnock said from the pulpit. "It is not only to be on the wrong side of the issue. I submit it is to be on the wrong side of God."

On Wednesday, Warnock sat down with NPR to reflect on King's legacy, Floyd's death and the civil unrest gripping his city and the nation.

Interview Highlights

On what it was like to deliver the Sunday sermon from King's former pulpit while the tensions are so high across Atlanta

I'll tell you what it was like. It was like when I preached the Sunday after Michael Brown's deathand the Sunday I preached after Sandra Bland's death. And Tamir Rice's death. And Trayvon Martin's death. And here we are. The death of George Floyd, as tragic as it is, and it's tragic, it is a flashpoint of a deeper systemic issue in our country. Namely, mass incarceration. And until we get serious about reinvesting in our people rather than investing in prisons, sadly, I'm going to have to keep preaching that same sermon over and over again.

On his urging for peaceful protests and the debate over whether another approach is needed

I think that part of the problem is that we romanticize and we don't quite remember what the civil rights movement looked like. I think some 50 and more years later, we tend to imagine the civil rights movement as a time when men like Martin Luther King Jr. and women like Ella Baker, they knew exactly what to do and they just showed up on the scene, and they did it and all of the sudden we got a civil rights bill and a voting rights bill. It was more complicated than that. ... You had the Martin Luther King Jrs. of the world and you had the Stokely Carmichaels of the world. There's always been this creative tension about how to get the change, but I think to their credit, most of the young people that I see protesting in Atlanta are doing so peacefully.

On how to reconcile the slogan, "Atlanta, the city too busy to hate," with the current moment

Atlanta is a magical place. I just want to make sure that our city and our state and our country is not too busy to love, and justice is what love looks like in public. And it takes time, it takes resources and it takes money. ... It takes new laws to love. And I think that's what this moment is calling for.

On running for the U.S. Senate

I'm running for the United States Senate, and it comes as part of my long life commitment to freedom and to justice making in the world. We are witnessing in this time, really we are beset by two viruses: COVID-19 and COVID-1619 ... 1619, the year that 50 or more Africans who had been enslaved arrived on the shores of Jamestown, and since that moment we have been dealing as a country with this virus, and we thought that we had solved it after the Civil War, but it mutated into Jim Crow segregation. We thought the civil rights movement vaccinated us against us, but then we got the new Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander calls it, the mass incarceration and the age of color blindness. So these flashpoints are a consequence of the criminalization of black bodies and general brown bodies and general black male bodies in particular, and that's what we're wrestling with this week.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.