Having vanquished the manufactured menaces of vaccine mandates, the gay agenda and widespread election fraud, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, used his midterm’s election victory speech to position himself as a wartime leader. Now, he was preparing his constituents for the existential battle posed by their newest imaginary adversary: wokeness. In Churchillian tones, he announced: “We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”
DeSantis was summoning the resentment that produced the racial terrorism of Reconstruction, the pro-lynching Red Summer of 1919, and the pro-segregation states’ rights movement. This time, it was called anti-woke: a modern-day mixture of McCarthyism and white grievance.
In 2021, the right became increasingly irate at what it described as “wokeness” but which tended to mean any attempt to engage in civil rights or social justice. In 2022, anti-woke became an ideology in itself, an attempt for the right to rebrand bigotry as a resistance movement.
The movement found a leader in DeSantis, who leveraged the anxiety of white voters to win re-election and author the Stop Woke Act, a legislative prototype that would prevent educational institutions and businesses from teaching anything that would cause anyone to “feel guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin. A federal judge ultimately struck down large parts of the bill, calling it “positively dystopian”.
DeSantis is not the only soldier in this war. Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ most celebrated anti-woke host, has informed his audience that everything from Black Lives Matter to brown M&Ms are purveyors of evil wokeism. He told his viewers that the threat from the woke was far greater than the threat from Russia, asking: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”
Then there’s Steve Bannon, a mercenary for hire who sympathized with the Russian president in February because “Putin ain’t woke, he is anti-woke”. They have ground support from infantrymen like Vivek Ramaswamy, a Fox News contributor and biotech founder who believes conscious investing is going to destroy America (the New Yorker described him as “the CEO of Anti-Woke Inc”).
Toby Neugebauer, another foot soldier, attempted to start an anti-woke bank this year until he was forced to step down after allegations of workplace misconduct (the bank shuttered shortly after). Elon Musk also signed up when he took over and torpedoed Twitter, declaring: “The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters.” And the movement has found a British ally in Piers Morgan, who rails against Meghan’s “woke war”.
These men are united in their crusade against consciousness. They say they are serving a patriotic ideology that will deliver America from the scourge of Black history, diversity, equity, inclusion, trans rights, homosexuality and women choosing what to do with their own bodies. Just as conservatives managed to turn terms like “political correctness”, “family values” and “religious liberty” into bludgeons with which they can beat back the specter of equality, they successfully redefined “wokeness” by turning it into a pejorative that is synonymous with the demise of everything good and white about America.
It’s a neat trick, really. But it’s nothing new.
Staying woke is predicated on a maxim so common in Black America that the New York Times once simply called it a part of the “Negro idiom”. The first documented use of the phrase “stay woke” occurred in 1938, when Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter ended a song about nine Black men by advising Black people traveling through Alabama to “stay woke … Keep your eyes open.” In 1940, a member of the Negro United Mine Workers promised that the striking members would “stay woke up longer” than their opposition.
When Martin Luther King stood before Morehouse College’s graduating class to deliver the first draft of an address that would serve as his go-to speech for the rest of his life, he knew he was becoming a pariah. By 2 June 1959, the US government had already started a program aimed at “maintaining the existing social order” by “neutralizing individuals perceived as threats”. Long before King warned the students against complacency and racial backlash, the FBI had created what a Senate intelligence report referred to as “labels without meaning” that would eventually convince white Americans that King was an anti-American Marxist hellbent on destroying their beloved country.
On that day, King debuted his Remaining Awake speech, explaining: “There would be nothing more tragic during this period of social change than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place.”
But less than a decade later, many white Americans were ignoring the central theme of King’s most consistent message: stay woke. By 1964, a majority of white New Yorkers felt that the civil rights movement had “gone too far”. In 1965, a Gallup poll found that 85% of Americans believed that communists were involved in the civil rights movement. By 1966, only 36% of white Americans believed that King “helped the negro cause”.
My, how the times haven’t changed.
The war against wokeness is an inevitability, one that is either ignored or unknown to those who accept the whitewashed history that the anti-woke warriors seek to preserve. While some see this as part of the backlash to the racial reckoning of 2020, the cyclical effort to stymie progress is as predictable as a pendulum.
When more than 90% of Black men in the post-civil war south registered to vote, the racial resentment resulted in poll disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, and the Black codes that fed the exploding prison labor industry. After the first world war, more than 380,000 Black veterans returned to the south and began asserting their rights, producing a nationwide lynching epidemic. The integration of the US armed forces created the Dixiecrat movement. Civil rights legislation created a mass migration of southern conservatives from the Democratic Party to the GOP.
And this year, the pro-racist movement convinced its followers to publicly come out against antiracism, empowering “small government” conservatives who were previously whining about the whittling away of their “freedoms” to start demanding that the government regulate reproductive rights, sexual identity and gender expression.
Our nation has always used misinformation as kindling for a bonfire that draws “patriotic” moths to an undemocratic flame. Ultimately, the rise of the anti-woke movement is the latest iteration of the effort to maintain the existing social and political order. It is just another “label without meaning”: a cloak for racism, homophobia, transphobia and all manner of inequality. At its core is the desire to form a less perfect union, establish injustice and dismantle domestic tranquility. It is unpatriotic. To be anti-woke is to be anti-American.
Contrary to the claims of those who profess to know “what MLK would have wanted”, King spoke more about being woke than he did about dreams or mountaintops. His Remaining Awake speech contradicted the conservative assertion that institutional racism is a myth and dispelled any notion that the US is not a racist country. In his 1964 address to Oberlin College, King called racism a “national problem”, explaining that “everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions”. Anti-woke activists would have hated his 1966 lecture at Southern Methodist University, when the speech included a version of history that began in 1619 as the “first Negro slaves landed on the shores of this nation … against their will”. That sounds a lot like critical race theory. Maybe he was trying to teach people how to be an anti-racist.
On 31 March 1968, King decided to sprinkle a few Bible verses into his trusty speech for a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. In the church called the “spiritual home for the nation”, King gave the most complete version of Remaining Awake Through a Revolution. It was longer than the I Have a Dream and I Have Been to the Mountaintop speeches combined. King explained that battling injustice would cause some Americans to lash out against those fighting to live in a free country. Still, he admonished the worshippers to stay woke, while he offered what still stands as the clearest explanation for the entire phenomenon.
“I say to you that our goal is freedom, and I believe we are going to get there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom,” King preached, before revealing the reason why he believed the beta version of the anti-woke movement was doomed.
“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face will surely fail … however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing We Shall Overcome.”
Four days after he assured the nation that “we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, an anti-woke warrior fired a bullet into Martin Luther King’s face.
So was King wrong?
Maybe the moral arc of the universe is just part of a circle that bends towards whiteness. Perhaps the lesson of 2022 is those who refuse to teach America’s true history have doomed us to repeat it. Or maybe it is a lesson in physics – for every positive action there is an equal and opposite backlash. Emancipation, then mass incarceration. Reconstruction, then segregation. The civil rights movement begat the states’ rights movement. The 1619 Project spawned the 1776 Project. LGBTQ+ pride produced “don’t say gay”. The response to critical race theory was the “great replacement theory”. Black Lives Matter spawned White Lives Matter. And when the murder of George Floyd opened the eyes of people who say they “don’t see color”, the racial reckoning resulted in an equal and opposite white backlash that morphed into the anti-woke movement.
On 5 April 1968, the president of the United States joined an estimated 4,000 mourners to remember King at the church where he delivered his last sermon. As a bell tolled and worshippers exited, a group of white children standing outside began singing We Shall Overcome.
This, my friend, is the oxymoron of America. And that is the lesson for 2022. The only reliable thing in America is the recurring racial backlash; everything else is sermon and song. Progress is fragile. Momentum is fleeting. This country is not a pendulum; it is a metronome. And King was right: we shall overcome. He was also correct when he told the audience at the National Cathedral that “truth, crushed to the ground, will rise again”.
2022 was about the crushing.
This content was originally published here.