The horrific attack on the Capitol overshadowed another remarkable event that occurred last week, which was the election of a black Democratic senator in a former Confederate state. While Rev. Raphael Warnock is not the first black southern senator to be elected in recent years—there is also Republican Tim Scott in South Carolina—he is the first who has made racial justice a key component of his campaign. Unlike Scott, who received few black votes, Warnock benefitted from Stacy Abrams’s robust get-out-the-vote effort, which succeeded in spite of GOP voter suppression efforts.
To honor the occasion, here’s a Jacqueline Woodson poem looking back at the Civil Rights movement, without which Warnock could not have been elected. While Woodson chooses Feb. 12, 1963 because it was the day she was born, 1963 was also the defining year of the Civil Rights movement. 1963 saw Martin Luther’s King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the bombing that killed four girls in a Birmingham church. It also saw John F. Kennedy sending the National Guard to the University of Alabama when George Wallace attempted to prevent black students from entering.
Warnock, it so happens, was himself born in the 1960s (in 1969), a year after King was assassinated. Warnock has followed in King’s footsteps, having been pastor of King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Woodson’s image of rivers running through her veins undoubtedly alludes to Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which concludes, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Although born in Ohio, Woodson recognizes the importance of her southern roots.
February 12, 1963
By Jacqueline Woodson
I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
a country caught
between Black and White.
I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
worked the deep rich land
dawn till dusk
drank cool water from scooped-out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky’s mirrored constellation
I am born as the South explodes,
too many people too many years
enslaved, then emancipated
but not free, the people
who look like me
and getting killed
so that today—
February 12, 1963
and every day from this moment on,
brown children like me can grow up
free. Can grow up
learning and voting and walking and riding
wherever we want.
I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
through my veins.