Raphael Warnock and Hershel Walker discuss race in Georgia Senate contest Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Republican Hershel Walker face off in Georgia, the first time two Black men are major party nominees.

With two Black men running for Senate in Georgia, race takes center stage

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the first time, the top nominees for a U.S. Senate seat from Georgia are both Black men. Republican Herschel Walker, a former football star, is challenging Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. When they debate each other on Friday, both will carry their experiences as Black men born and raised in Georgia. WABE's Sam Gringlas explains how that history informs their campaigns and their opposing views on race.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: It's easy to find contrasts between Georgia's top two candidates for U.S. Senate. Senator Raphael Warnock supports abortion rights. Herschel Walker has called for a total ban.

HERSCHEL WALKER: There is no - there's no exception in my mind. I can say I believe in life.

GRINGLAS: So no exceptions.

WALKER: No exceptions. I believe in life.

GRINGLAS: Recently, Walker has come under scrutiny for allegations he paid for an ex-girlfriend's abortion despite his hardline stance as a candidate. Those accounts are now overshadowing pretty much everything else.

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WALKER: They'll do whatever it takes, say whatever they have to say because they want this seat right here. But I don't think they know that they woke up a bear.

GRINGLAS: Walker is a beloved football star. But his campaign has sparked controversy from the start, including for how he talks about race.

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WALKER: 23andMe has screwed us all up. So it don't matter about your color. A house divided cannot stand. So I want us to come together.

GRINGLAS: Walker says Democrats, like his opponent, use race to divide. Raphael Warnock is senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.'s Church, Ebenezer Baptist. He talks about dismantling systemic racism, like in this Senate floor speech about voting rights.

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RAPHAEL WARNOCK: We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights. This is Jim Crow in new clothes.

GRINGLAS: The now-political rivals were born just 115 miles and seven years apart, both the children of poor Black families who have lived in Georgia for generations. But as young adults in the '70s and '80s, they developed diverging views on race and racism that shaped their Senate campaigns today - Walker on the football field and Warnock in the church.

LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: The institution of the church is, for many Black communities, a lifeline. It's an organizing and mobilizing space.

GRINGLAS: Leah Wright Rigueur is a political historian at Johns Hopkins University.

RIGUEUR: Certainly, sports becomes a site of resistance in terms of African Americans desegregating teams, African Americans using sports to grasp some measure of social mobility.

GRINGLAS: When Walker played football and track at Johnson County High School, it had only been integrated for a few years.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Wrightsville, Ga., home of Johnson County High School football star Herschel Walker, the most recruited player in the nation this year.

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WALKER: I was just now coming out to be a great athlete. I think my high school is probably almost 50/50 white, Black.

GRINGLAS: That's Walker in an interview with rapper Killer Mike on WABE. In Walker's memoir, he writes about being overcome by fear of the Ku Klux Klan and remembers them stalking Black kids as they walked home from school, pulling them into the woods for mock lynchings.

RIGUEUR: There is a broad misconception of what life is like in the 1980s in the South. There still remains a very segregated, economically unequal society for African Americans.

GRINGLAS: For Raphael Warnock, that society was Savannah, Ga. As a teen, Warnock spent hours at a nearby library listening to recordings from the civil rights movement. He wrote about that time in his memoir.

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WARNOCK: I repeatedly played one of Dr. King's key sermons, "A Knock At Midnight." He preached a different kind of gospel from what I typically heard in most churches.

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: There are men who stand up in the pulpit and preach every Sunday, and yet they can look at racial injustice and never open their mouths against it.

GRINGLAS: Meanwhile, in Wrightsville, Herschel Walker would soon be called on to raise his voice.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Last night, there were state troopers everywhere. They were ordered into the area by Governor Busbee.

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WALKER: There was the Klan's coming down to Wrightsville, Ga. They was like, oh, Herschel, you got to do this. You got to do that.

GRINGLAS: Walker had just led Johnson County High to the 1980 state football championship. It was national news when Walker accepted a full ride to play for the University of Georgia. Days later, Wrightsville attracted the country's attention again.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) Keep on talking, marching on till freedom ring (ph).

GRINGLAS: Protests against racial injustice had broken out, directed at the county's white sheriff. As marchers gathered, they were met with violence. The Klan mobilized. Locals and out-of-town civil rights leaders pleaded for Wrightsville's most famous resident to speak out.

TOM JORDAN: Well, he had white people calling him the n-word and he had Black people calling him Uncle Tom.

GRINGLAS: Walker's track coach, Tom Jordan, was one of his early mentors.

JORDAN: And he was just searching for his spot.

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Morehouse.

GRINGLAS: Raphael Warnock, however, was finding his spot at Morehouse College, the historically Black school in Atlanta attended by Dr. King four decades earlier. Warnock signed up to serve as an assistant at the King Memorial Chapel on campus. The chapel's dean, Lawrence Carter, became Warnock's mentor.

LAWRENCE CARTER: Supremely confident, mature beyond his years. He frequently would come into the chapel library and sit down with no one else there, and he would study.

GRINGLAS: It was at the chapel where Warnock's ideas about racial justice and faith coalesced.

CARTER: And when our chapel is packed and our 6,000-pipe organ is sounding in their ears, surrounded by people who are doing bold things, that pours iron into your spine. And when you see injustice, you want to do something about it.

GRINGLAS: Herschel Walker faced a decision about whether to do something about the racial injustices in Wrightsville. Here's track coach Tom Jordan.

JORDAN: I called a team meeting. I said, look, guys - I said, you can't get in shape for a track meet marching. You've got to run. Practice is at 3 o'clock, and you know I don't tolerate missing.

GRINGLAS: More than a dozen of Walker's teammates quit the track team. Walker did not.

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WALKER: And my parents taught me to do what's right. There's no color in right or wrong.

GRINGLAS: Walker didn't say anything publicly about the protests, reflecting on his decision years later, again, in an interview with Killer Mike.

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WALKER: What would have happened if I went the other side? If I went that side, where will I be at today? Because right now, I got an opportunity. I can get a seat at the table.

GRINGLAS: Now, that seat at the table may be in the U.S. Senate.

RIGUEUR: His political viewpoints and his rejection of race as a consideration does not represent African American audiences. It is, however, the perspective of the majority of working-class white voters in the state of Georgia.

GRINGLAS: Historian Leah Wright Rigueur says these views aren't an anomaly, so they shouldn't be ignored, especially when they're coming from a candidate on the cusp of immense influence. These two candidates have laid out conflicting descriptions of the country's current divisions. Here's Herschel Walker.

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WALKER: We're not a racist country. The United States of America is the greatest country in the world today, and it is time that we get leaders in Washington that know that.

GRINGLAS: This is Raphael Warnock.

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WARNOCK: We elected Georgia's first African American Jewish senator. And hours later, the Capitol was assaulted. We see in just a few precious hours the tension very much alive in the soul of America. And the question before all of us at every moment is, what will we do to push us in the right direction?

GRINGLAS: Warnock and Walker's lives took them in two different directions. Georgia voters will soon choose which candidate they want to follow.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta.

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