By Carter Dewees
For The Birmingham Times
When Birmingham attorney Byron Perkins paid a visit to historic Sixth Avenue Baptist Church 30 years ago, he did not realize that a future U.S. Senator stood before him in the pulpit. Perkins heard a young preacher who not only left an impression on him but also became a lifelong friend—Raphael Warnock, who in January became the first Black senator in Georgia history and the first Black Democrat to be elected to the Senate in the South.
Perkins, namesake of the Perkins Law Firm LLC in Birmingham, said he formed “a deep bond” with Warnock, who is godfather to Perkins’s children.
Perkins isn’t the only lawyer from Birmingham with a tie to the historic Georgia Senate race. Steven Parker, a former attorney at Birmingham firm Balch and Bingham LLP and professor in the Paralegal Department at Samford University, helped Democrat Jon Ossoff deliver Georgia’s other Senate seat in January. Parker now serves as Ossoff’s deputy state director.
Perkins remembers when John Porter, the former pastor of Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, would bring different interns to be his pulpit associate every summer. One year, he brought in Warnock.
“He was a junior going into his senior year at Morehouse [College], but man when he preached, he preached,” Perkins recalled. “[Warnock] had been preaching since he was 11 or 12 years old. As a result of that, we met, became friends, and have just basically been friends ever since.”
Perkins campaigned with Warnock in Gwinnett County, Georgia, before the runoff and was alongside the senator in Atlanta, Georgia, on election night.
“God’s right hand of favor has [always] been on his life, so I never doubted for a minute that he would win the election,” Perkins said of Warnock.
During the campaign Perkins heard some familiar messaging from Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis used to worship and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as co-pastor with his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.
Perkins calls Warnock a “Matthew 25 Christian,” which means “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the poor, and also helping the sick,” referencing verses 35 and 36 of Matthew 25, which reads, “For I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.”
Perkins said Warnock has many progressive stances on government assistance, including extending affordable health care, delivering additional stimulus checks to provide relief during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing the federal minimum wage to $15.
“I think this is a natural extension of what Dr. King was trying to do, with Warnock being the pastor at Ebenezer and being active in different things—Civil Rights, human rights—for 20-plus years before he even decided to run for office,” Perkins said. “I think [Warnock] will carry his commitment to people.”
While there are many things about which Perkins and Warnock agree, there is one area where they don’t see eye-to-eye.
“He’s a [University of Georgia] fan,” said Perkins, who’s a University of Alabama fan. “So, I do give him a hard time about ‘Roll Tide.’”
Despite their different sports allegiances, their strong bond is paramount. Warnock is a “good, down-to-earth guy, but he’s also a biblical scholar, so you can sit down and talk to him about trying to understand the scriptures,” Perkins said.
“He is godfather to my [two] children, so a lot of times on Sundays, I will get up or [my family] will get up, leave [Birmingham] by 7:30 a.m., and be in Atlanta for the 11 a.m. service [at Ebenezer Baptist].”
Perkins and Warnock are fraternity brothers, as well; they both are members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated.
“The Divine Nine played a big role not only in Warnock’s election but also in participation in the presidential election because [U.S. Vice President] Kamala Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, from Howard University. That is a very, very deep bond in the Black community,” said Perkins.
The Divine Nine, also known as the National Pan-Hellenic Council, is a group of nine historically Black fraternities and sororities that work with member organizations to improve their communities, promote unity, and empower its members economically.
Parker was in Europe in 2017 when he got a call from Meredith Lilly, an experienced political strategist in Georgia and a friend of Parker from their time studying for the bar exam together in Birmingham in 2005. She asked if he knew Jon Ossoff, the then-Democratic candidate for Georgia’s sixth congressional district. He needed a “body man,” someone to work long hours and keep up with him during the campaign.
“I was with him 15 hours a day [in 2017],” said Parker.
Ossoff’s campaign came up short in that election, but lessons learned in 2017 helped Parker and Ossoff in 2020, when Parker became political director for Ossoff’s 2020 U.S. Senate campaign. From the earlier defeat, they learned the importance of direct voter contact. Though it was more difficult during the pandemic, volunteers helped Ossoff win in January.
Parker, who now serves as Ossoff’s deputy state director, got unique insight into the senator’s values, which he says stem from the idea of the “beloved community,” a concept often expressed by the late U.S. Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis, for whom Ossoff once worked as an intern.
Parker describes the “beloved community” as, “When we move out of love and concern, we will arrive at a place where we are able to move our society forward on race relations and find solutions to affordable housing and affordable education. To find justice.”
Parker was in the Ossoff campaign office on election night. He and other staffers knew the race would be close, so their nerves “ebbed and flowed,” Parker said, as results poured in. Parker knew many counties around Atlanta would take longer to count ballots, so by that point “it was just a matter of watching [Ossoff’s] numbers tick up,” Parker recalled.
Parker was also in touch with the Warnock campaign throughout the runoff election, during which the two U.S. Senate candidates often appeared together across the state.
“We would give each other a heads up if there were any issues that arose during the campaign,” said Parker.
Updated at 9:49 a.m. on 2/22/2021 to correct the fraternity brothers.
Updated at 11:04 a.m. on 2/22/2021 for editing.