The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday celebration at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, held every January, has become a major political and cultural event over the last three decades.
The televised marathon of sermons, call-and-response, speeches, singing, and poetry-reading can fill three to four hours without a break. First-time attendees are encouraged to enter the Auburn Avenue sanctuary in a somewhat dehydrated state, to make their lengthy pew time more enjoyable.
For ambitious Democrats, attendance is mandatory, but Republican participation has been spotty. In his five years as governor, Nathan Deal has attended the event twice – leaving shortly after his address each time.
The exception has been U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “I’ve gone for about 22 years,” he said. “I used to go in the Old Ebenezer, the original Ebenezer Baptist. I appreciate the opportunity.” Each year, Isakson stays from beginning to end.
The senator’s annual pilgrimage could become important in 2016. Last week, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer, announced he is considering a Democratic challenge to Isakson’s re-election bid.
We may be about to witness the most passionate but cordial political campaign in Georgia history.
Warnock wouldn’t abandon his Ebenezer pulpit, once occupied by Martin Luther King – father and son. Should he run, and should he win, the U.S. Senate would be a second job. “I have no plans of leaving Ebenezer. None whatsoever,” Warnock told his congregation Sunday. “There’s preachers all over the country, shaking off their resume. Tell them to hold onto it.”
So far, Warnock is the only Democrat to speak publicly of a challenge to Isakson. Warnock has never run for public office before, but the 45-year-old pastor is a stirring orator. With Deal and Isakson in attendance, the pastor has lectured both governor and senator on the need to expand Medicaid rolls in Georgia. In 2014, Warnock had the honor of being arrested at the State Capitol, as part of a protest over Georgia’s refusal to take full advantage of the Affordable Care Act.
Warnock has spoken of the need to register more African-American voters, and that may be incentive enough to enter the race. In any case, he would provide Isakson with eloquent, if not necessarily well-funded, opposition. (On the Republican side, Derrick Grayson, another African-American, is Isakson’s only announced primary opponent.)
So on Wednesday, on a visit to Isakson’s Atlanta office, it only made sense to ask Isakson what he thought of the Ebenezer pastor’s deliberations.
“I know Reverend Warnock very well. He’s a very talented and gifted preacher,” the 70-year-old Republican senator began.
The two probably met first at a King Day celebration, but Isakson said he recalled a lunch at the 191 Club, at which Warnock asked for some advice on federal funding for a church project.
“That was a professional call. Then I had him up as my guest to be chaplain of the day in the Senate a couple years ago,” Isakson said. “I gave him my ticket to the State of the Union address that President Obama made one year.”
But wait. There was more. “I commend to you his book, ‘The Divided Mind of the Black Church,’ Isakson said. (2013, NYU Press, $30) “He gave it to me as a gift. I’ve read it and used it in the last two King Day speeches I’ve done.”
Isakson described the work with some authority. “It’s a book that talks about the genesis of [King’s] ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ Remember, back then the Birmingham black ministers were against Dr. King – they wanted him to slow down,” the senator said. Overall, Isakson said, Warnock’s book describes the constant tension within the black church between social justice and personal salvation.
"It's a good book," he added.
Before I walked into Isakson’s office, I had texted the vacationing Warnock to give him a heads up. I would need the pastor’s response if Isakson said anything untoward. Warnock replied that he doubted it would be necessary. “He and I have a good personal relationship,” the pastor texted back. And he was right.
So 2016 may be an odd election year.
We are already in the midst of a noisy presidential campaign. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, has accused the White House of concocting an Iran nuclear deal that would march Israel to ‘the door of the oven.’
Depending on how his hormones run, Donald Trump praises Mexico’s undermining of the U.S. auto industry, or accuses the country of exporting an army of rapists and thieves across its northern border.
And yet in Georgia, we have a U.S. Senate race that is veering dangerously close to becoming a bombast-free zone. If he runs, the Reverend Warnock will have to answer the same question I posed to Isakson: Where’s the anger?
“I can get angry in a heartbeat if someone’s picking on my friends,” Isakson replied. “I’m a passionate man, not an angry man. There’s a difference.
“This is my forty-first year in public life. I’ve done some passionate things,” he said. Like running against House Speaker Tom Murphy in the 1980s as a state lawmaker – which was akin to running into a brick wall at top speed.
But on the whole, Isakson said, rhetoric has its limitations. “You might make a speech that strikes lightning,” the senator said. He cited MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Or John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” address that same year. Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” exhortation in 1987 finished out Isakson’s examples.
“But in the end, it was the longevity of that passion that made the change take place,” Isakson said. “In my business, I planned on a longitudinal basis, not a short-term basis. The goal is what’s important – not the moment.”
But there will be one important moment, a long one, should the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church become a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.
In 2016, the MLK holiday falls on Monday, Jan. 18. You know where Isakson will be. If Pastor Warnock is the gentleman we know him to be, he will share his pulpit in some fashion with his Republican opponent.
Just remember: No more than one cup of coffee before you sit down.