Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis addressed the congregation of Big Bethel AME Church on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024. During her time there Willis was open about the many death threats she has received. (Photo by Kerri Phox/The Atlanta Voice)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis took a step away from the lectern inside the pulpit at Big Bethel AME Church and caught herself. She was in the middle of her testimony, a discussion she recently had with God, and was about to cry. Willis was invited to be the guest speaker for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial service at the historic 175-year-old church located in the heart of Auburn Avenue, and moments earlier told the congregation that this was going to be a different kind of interruption in service.

“Now I must warn you, if you are looking today to hear from a perfect person, well he was crucified and he died for your sins,” said Willis. “Today what God has brought you is his very flawed, hard-headed, and imperfect servant. So I pray for him to please use me this morning.”

Church elders and leaders form a prayer circle with Willis (to the right of the woman in blue) before Sunday service, Jan. 14, 2024.
Photo by Kerri Phox/The Atlanta Voice

Willis announced to the congregation that the theme being celebrated on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is, “It starts with me.” She proclaimed that there has been and can continue to be a shift in the cultural climate through the study and practice of Dr. King’s non-violent philosophy. The current climate she said she was in was one of hatred, racism, sexism, violence, and constant death threats. As one of a very few female district attorneys of color in the United States, Willis already had a tough job to do in Atlanta’s largest and most populated county. Of the 50 district attorneys in the state of Georgia, only seven are Black women.

On Sunday, without having to mention the name of the former United States president currently dealing with indictments in Fulton County, she was clear that the weight of her lofty position had gotten much heavier following the charges levied against Donald J. Trump.

“This church is built on faith and resilience and this hard-headed, flawed, imperfect servant before you is built and is being constantly chiseled on faith and resilience,” Willis said. “I knew God was telling me I’m sending you where you need to be. God always brings you to that safe place where you need to be.”

Willis said, “”I must reveal a secret, the journey is ugly, the journey is painful, the journey is full of pitfalls, but if you are one of His children you must answer the purpose, the call, and you must answer the mandate.” Photo by Kerri Phox/The Atlanta Voice

Willis asked a question that felt more introspective than rhetorical. “How much are you presently willing to sacrifice for the greater good of His purpose?,” she said. “I want to talk to you today about what is required to be a soldier in warfare to shift the cultural climate.”

A mother of two adult daughters, Willis, 52, said, “I must reveal a secret, the journey is ugly, the journey is painful, the journey is full of pitfalls, but if you are one of His children you must answer the purpose, the call, and you must answer the mandate.”

During her 30 minutes in the pulpit, Willis shared stories that her father, former defense attorney and member of the Black Panther Party, John C. Floyd III, shared with her of Dr. King. She said her father spent time with King and often told her stories about speaking with King and how tired the slain Civil Rights era leader was.

“I must confess to you, as a little girl I really didn’t think that Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream would still be just a work in progress. I thought by 2024 that us humans would have gotten it together. That the cultural shift would have already taken place. I thought by now we would all just be getting along. Boy was I wrong.”

She said now, as much as any time in history this country needs a cultural shift. She used the lack of respect for law enforcement and the racist, bigoted, and hateful rhetoric being shared on social media and in public as examples. “Americans have normalized cruelty, bigotry, and hate,” Willis said. “See they criticize me for who my Earthly father is and my Heavenly one.”

Floyd let his daughter know there is a big difference in how King is celebrated today versus when he was alive and one of the faces of a cultural change in America. Those lessons on perspective have not left Willis, who was uncharacteristically open and vulnerable during her time at Big Bethel. “Oh we’re going to tell the truth this morning,” she said. “This week at one point I became so in need of my source that I stopped and to tap in I penned a letter to my Heavenly father. I desperately needed to tap into that one source. God knows my heart, my joys, my pains, my sins, my faults.”

She prefaced that point by proclaiming, “In my life I have experienced things that taught me that Jesus is the only source I can rely on every time and all the time,” Willis said.

Willis shared that she still receives a steady diet of death and bomb threats. Through different means, King shared similar experiences of threats of violence to himself and his family during his journey from co-pastor under his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church and the first president of the Student Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to global icon and later civil rights martyr.

In a candid moment that drew a hush over the crowd, Willis shared that if she isn’t alerted of multiple death threats per week

On Christmas Day 2023 she was alerted of a shooting at her home only to learn that it was a cruel prank. She called it just another day when her joy was stolen while trying to celebrate God.

Photo by Kerri Phox/The Atlanta Voice

“God, I trust you, God, I thank you, God, I love you, I thank you for every attack that makes me stronger,” she said. “See, I sit here with a peace that passes all understanding.” The latter statement brought the congregation to its feet.

United States Representative Majorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga, 14th District) and Fulton County Commissioner Bridget Thorne were mentioned during Willis’ testimony. “God, I don’t want to be like those who attack me. I don’t want to be like a Marjorie Taylor Greene,” said Willis. “How is this woman who has the honor of being a leader in my state, how is it that she has not reached out to me? She can tell me I don’t agree with anything that you’re doing, but I do not agree with people threatening your life or the life of your family.”

She said God asked her to pray for Greene, Thorne, and others who have ill intentions or thoughts about her and her family.

During the reading of her letter to God, Willis also shared with the congregation that she sometimes feels unworthy of the position she currently holds. She read: “Lord, even right now I continue to feel unworthy of the honor. A divorced single mom who doesn’t belong to the right social groups, that doesn’t necessarily come from the right family, and doesn’t have the right pedigree, the assignment was just too high for lowly me.”

Willis shared that she “struggled the entire time” raising her children following her divorce from their father, but obeyed God and carried on to eventually become the first ever female Fulton County District Attorney. “It will always be one of my greatest honors. I worked so hard for it for so long, but I still humbly realize that only one percent of the district attorneys in this country are women of color.”

Carla Morrison, chair of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worship service, said to Willis, “Sister Willis, Big Bethel pulled out all the stops for you this morning.”

Presiding Prelate, Sixth Episcopal District AME Church Bishop Reginald T. Jackson (above) spoke of Willis’ preparedness for the job of Fulton County District Attorney. “She’s prepared for the job for which she was elected. I want Fulton County to know that this is one of the best things you’ve done.” Photo by Kerri Phox/The Atlanta Voice

Willis was presented with a plaque and some gifts by church leaders, including senior pastor Rev. Dr. John Foster and Presiding Prelate, Sixth Episcopal District AME Church Bishop Reginald T. Jackson who said of Willis during his introduction of her as the guest speaker, “She’s prepared for the job for which she was elected. I want Fulton County to know that this is one of the best things you’ve done. I am so proud of our speaker this morning.”

Willis closed with her time in church with some homework for the congregation: “Please find a way to do your God-given assignment to make this world a better place for all people.” 

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Donnell began his career covering sports and news in Atlanta nearly two decades ago. Since then he has written for Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Southern Cross...