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Violence In D.C. Overshadows Democrats' Wins In Ga. Senate Runoffs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The violence in Washington partly overshadowed another history-making event. Democrats won both of Georgia's Senate runoff elections. That's a remarkable turn for a state that had been solidly red until recently, and it also means that Democrats will be in full control of Congress. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock's victories did that. NPR's Sarah McCammon visited Warnock's hometown of Savannah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: St. Philip Monumental AME Church has a long history in Savannah.

BERNARD CLARKE: This particular pulpit right here is the original pulpit from the original church.

MCCAMMON: The old building is gone. But Reverend Bernard Clarke says the congregation, which now meets in a towering church in historic downtown Savannah, has preserved precious artifacts through the generations.

CLARKE: It dates back to 1865.

MCCAMMON: The AME, or African Methodist Episcopal, Church also has a long history of work for civil rights causes across the Deep South. That includes Savannah, a majority-Black city on the Georgia coast, where many schools are still largely segregated and many families face poverty. Recently, Clarke says that tradition of activism has meant working to elect a native son, the Reverend Raphael Warnock, as the state's first Black U.S. senator.

CLARKE: We didn't have a Thanksgiving, we didn't have a Christmas, and we really didn't have a New Year because we've been working.

MCCAMMON: Clarke's stepdaughter, LaToya Brannen, has been doing a lot of work to mobilize Black voters here, some from the church's archive room.

LATOYA BRANNEN: I'm going to call this our little war room.

MCCAMMON: The room is stacked with cardboard boxes full of leftover door hangers and other campaign materials.

BRANNEN: And we just try to put this information primarily in ZIP codes that are known to be low-propensity voters. When you come home quite a few times in the last two months and you keep seeing this literature on your front door, fliers are coming in the mail, you're at your favorite barber shop, corner restaurant, you're seeing the signs, then you know we know that we've made a great impact.

MCCAMMON: Activist Stacey Abrams spearheaded a coalition of groups that led efforts like these across Georgia, turning out voters of color and other progressives in droves. That helped propel President-elect Joe Biden to his win here in November and pushed Democrats Ossoff and Warnock to victory this week. For Brannen, who grew up in Savannah, Warnock's win is an inspirational moment.

BRANNEN: And I think that by Reverend Warnock being elected, that's just really going to open doors for so many youth who can really know that, OK, I can get anywhere from where I am here.

MCCAMMON: Another activist, Chassidy Malloy, began working on get-out-the-vote efforts after losing her job in the early days of the pandemic.

CHASSIDY MALLOY: This is a huge, huge moment.

MCCAMMON: She sees the election of both Warnock and Ossoff, who's Jewish and in his early 30s, as a hopeful turning point.

MALLOY: Not only for Georgia, we realize the significance of all eyes being on the country. And we knew that everything we were doing, as tired as we were and as much as we gave and as much as we sacrificed and enduring this all in a pandemic, we knew our efforts would not be in vain.

MCCAMMON: But these activists say their elation was blunted by news of the storming of the Capitol in Washington, which cast a dark cloud over what otherwise would have been a day of celebration. Malloy says that she's been feeling mixed emotions, both jubilant and a bit disgusted.

MALLOY: Seeing how, as much as you push hard for change and you push hard for a more positive future for America, that there will always be a pushback.

MCCAMMON: Pushback against progress and racial justice has always been part of America's history, Malloy says. But she adds, that has not deterred any of us.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Savannah.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEEM THE CIPHER'S "BLOSSOM.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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