'Only in America': Warnock's rise from poverty to US senator

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Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock waves to supporters during a drive-in rally, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Savannah, Ga. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris made a campaign stop for Georgia candidates Warnock and Jon Ossoff before the runoff election Tuesday. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

SAVANNAH, Ga. – The Rev. Raphael Warnock's roots showed little promise of a future that led to the U.S. Senate.

He grew up in Savannah in the Kayton Homes public housing project, the second youngest of 12 children. His mother as a teenager had worked as a sharecropper picking cotton and tobacco. His father was a preacher who also made money hauling old cars to a local scrapyard.

“My daddy used to wake me up every morning at dawn,” Warnock told a hometown crowd at a drive-in rally two days before his election Tuesday. “He said, `Boy, you can’t sleep late in my house. Get up, get dressed, put your shoes on. Get ready.'”

Pushed by his parents to work hard, Warnock left Savannah and became the first member of his family to graduate from college, helped by Pell grants and low-interest student loans. He earned a Ph.D. in theology that led to a career in the pulpit, eventually as head pastor of the Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

Now Warnock, 51, will go to Washington as the first Black senator elected from Georgia, a Southern state still grappling with its painful history of slavery, segregation and racial injustice.

“Only in America is my story even possible,” Warnock told the cheering drive-in crowd Sunday.

Warnock defeated Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman who spent more than $20 million of her own money to try to keep the Senate seat to which Georgia's Republican governor appointed her a year ago.

His election followed a year scarred not only by a pandemic that disproportionately killed African Americans and left many jobless and struggling to pay rent, but also marked by the volatile outcry over the killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks in Georgia.