In 1965, a Southern minister named C.T. Vivian provided one of the most electrifying and emotional moments of the civil rights movement when angrily confronted Selma’s racist sheriff Jim Clark pushing away would-be black voters, declaring, “We’re willing to be beaten for democracy!"
In 2020, with American streets on fire and the nation’s 400-year quest for racial justice still unfulfilled, Charles Booker was willing to be tear gassed for democracy.
In his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Booker found himself nightly in the center of often peaceful, occasionally chaotic protests — prompted not only by George Floyd’s death but an event closer to home, the no-knock raid and inexplicable police killing of a 27-year-old EMT, Breonna Taylor — and was met by tear gas from police officers who also fired pepper balls into the crowd.
The 35-year-old Booker is just one of thousands of Louisville citizens who literally risked their life — one protester was shot and killed by the National Guard under murky circumstances, and seven others were wounded in a separate shooting — to make their voice heard about the lack of justice in Taylor’s killing. But there’s one powerful difference: Booker — currently a Kentucky state rep — is now surging in his upstart bid to unseat Washington’s second most-powerful Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
If he wins, Booker could offer a moral clarity of a kind that rarely echoes across the Senate chamber. On Monday night, he told a debate with his Democratic rivals in Kentucky’s June 23 primary that he “barely made it today because I left the streets where so many Kentuckians are demanding justice and accountability.” He went on to declare: “What we’re seeing now in Louisville [and] all over our country, are people that feel ignored and abandoned. They feel like justice is not accountable to them. They feel like their humanity is ignored and denied. Very specifically, they’re feeling the weight of structural racism and inequity that has permeated [society] for generations."
One of the many revolutionary changes that may result from an American Spring of protest and upheaval of a kind that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s is an opportunity to correct an appalling political injustice. The alliance between black voters and the Democratic Party led to the Selma-inspired Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the subsequent election of hundreds of African American officials — but it has never once resulted in the election of a black Southern Democratic senator. The Democrats’ failure has looked even worse as South Carolina Republicans in 2012 appointed and then elected a black man, Sen. Tim Scott — occasionally a voice of conscience even as he votes consistently for the agenda of a racist president in Donald Trump — to their open seat.
In 2020, Booker is one of three dynamic, highly credible black candidates — along with Jaime Harrison in South Carolina and the Rev. Raphael Warnock in Georgia — whose chances of breaking down that barrier seem to have surged in the two weeks since protests over the killings of Floyd, Taylor and other African Americans at the hands of police gripped the nation. With Confederate monuments toppling and corporations and once recalcitrant institutions like the NFL and NASCAR tripping over each other to proclaim, “Black Lives Matter,” will a black Southern voice for real progressive change finally ring out in the Senate?
The situation in Kentucky could reveal how much America’s political landscape has shifted since the night of Memorial Day, when kneeling Minneapolis cops suffocated and killed the handcuffed, unarmed Floyd. Coming into 2020, the Democratic Party establishment in D.C. — led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York — was locked into the conventional wisdom that only a white centrist with patriotic bona fides could even hope to win a mostly red state like Kentucky. That would be Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who narrowly lost a House race in 2018.
But while McGrath and her slickly produced ads raised millions in out-of-state donations, something else was happening on the ground in the Bluegrass State. Joshua Douglas, University of Kentucky law professor and author of the recent Vote for US, told me that the state’s Democratic base — a coalition of black and brown voters and young people from Louisville and Lexington, some rural activists and suburbanites disaffected by Trump that elected a Democratic governor in 2019 — has grown more energized by Booker while McGrath has struggled.
“[Booker] was coming off to voters as a lot more authentic,” Douglas said, especially after McGrath made some gobsmackingly pro-Trump comments on MSNBC and flip-flopped on whether or not she would have voted for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. When the Breonna Taylor protests erupted and Booker was in the street, McGrath was absent for days, blaming the coronavirus and scheduling. With America suddenly focused on race and inequity, polls showing massive shifts in public opinion, and protests even spreading to rural Kentucky, Douglas said “if you had drawn up a series of events in terms of the national political conversation, this is the right kind of environment” for a Booker surge.
Indeed. This month has seen a spike in donations to Booker — although he still considerably trails McGrath in the money department — and coveted endorsements by two figures widely revered by young Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He’s capped it off with primary endorsements from Kentucky’s two biggest newspapers, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal, which on Thursday wrote that “[f]rankly, it’s time to shake up the establishment, and Booker, who declares he’s ‘running against the status quo,’ is the right person for Democrats to consider.”
If Booker can seize the nomination from McGrath (and a credible challenge by farmer and universal-basic-income proponent Mike Broihier) and then manage to topple the cash-laden McConnell — whose popularity at home often has lagged his clout in D.C. — he could have some equally unlikely allies in the Senate chamber come January.
In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison — a former chair of the state Democratic Party, and more of a centrist than Booker (who takes Sanders-esque positions in favor of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal) — has surprised some political observers in his race against well-known GOP incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham He was actually raising more money than his now-zealously-pro-Trump rival in the first quarter of 2020 while pulling even with Graham in the latest polls.
The possibilities in Georgia — a state that seems at a tipping point as more Northern transplants and Latinos register to vote there — could be even more revolutionary. There, the minister who occupies the pulpit once held by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King inside Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church — the Rev. Raphael Warnock — is seen as the strongest Democrat in a muddled, open November special election for the seat now held by scandal-scarred Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
Like Booker, the 50-year-old Warnock is an unapologetic progressive and crusader for social justice, who once called on Trump to repent for his “volcanic eruption of hate speech spewing” and who supports leftist solutions on health care and climate. In the past, such a candidate in blood-red Georgia might be on the defensive over such stands and his past friendship with the black liberation pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery sermons as Barack Obama’s minister sparked controversy in 2008. But 2020 suddenly doesn’t look anything like the past.
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Atlanta’s Emory University, told me that because Warnock is the heir to MLK’s iconic pulpit, “people expect him to talk about black liberation, people expect him to talk about social justice.” Suddenly, the rest of America is talking about them, too. Now, according to this new ABC News poll, three of every four Americans believe that Floyd’s killing reveals systemic racial injustice, a stunning gain of 30 percentage points since the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2014. It’s hard not to think that all of this is going to change some people’s votes.
“We understand the importance of peaceful protest," Kentucky’s Booker said. "At the same time, the cries for justice, accountability, and humanity in response to Breonna Taylor’s killing must be heard. And they must be understood. The cries to end systemic racism can’t be hand-waved or dismissed in a conversation about how protesters should act.”