In recent months, the campaign against “woke” has reached the point where even Donald Trump, who in the past has thrown around this phrase quite a bit, has claimed it’s gone too far. “I don’t like the term woke,” he told an Iowa audience recently. “Half the people can’t define it; they don’t know what it is.” Notwithstanding Trump’s assertion, many conservatives have targeted “woke” as the enemy du jour. A PAC supporting Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, for example, recently produced an ad praising last month’s boycotts of Target and Bud Light for their supposedly trans-friendly policies and concluded with him proclaiming, “We will never ever surrender to the woke mob.” Aping Churchill’s famous 1940 inspirational speech encouraging the British in the early days of their fight against fascism, DeSantis, who earlier this year said “woke” seven times in 26 seconds, implored, “We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations.”
While the war on what DeSantis has also called “the woke mind virus” is new, the rhetoric and tactics employed by the Florida governor and many other conservatives date back at least to the start of the modern Civil Rights Movement. In the period after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, segregationist politicians attempted to use state power to punish progressive corporations, civil rights groups, and media outlets; pundits condemned what they saw as the narrowing of acceptable discourse and the demonization of their racist worldview; and citizen groups organized boycotts to maintain segregation.
Most of these efforts failed, and their targets—which included large corporations like Ford and Philip Morris, companies that advertised on popular television programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, and school districts that adopted textbooks that expurgated racist materials—flourished. But understanding the precedents for DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act helps us see that the contemporary conservative playbook has deep roots in history. While the nomenclature and the targets have changed, the strategy and rhetoric of anti-wokeness bear remarkable similarities to what John Patterson, the Alabama governor and staunch segregationist, called the “all-out war on integrationists” in 1959.
In May 1956, the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important African American newspapers in the country, reported on a recent development that it took to be encouraging news. NBC and CBS, two of the major television networks, the paper noted, “have finally taken a step in the right direction and have now started cleaning up some songs and jokes and banning others to hereafter prevent slurring any race of people.” Specifically, the networks had begun an informal policy of refusing to air offensive lyrics in Stephen Foster songs, and had even banned the song “Old Black Joe” in order “to stay clear of adverse public reaction.” Just two years after the Brown v. Board decision, the networks were recognizing that lyrics that valorized racial inequality were no longer appropriate, even in the oeuvre of Foster, one of America’s most beloved songwriters and the mid-19th-century creator of “Oh! Susanna,” “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” and many other songs that remained popular through the mid-20th century.
The following year, Rep. Charles Diggs, one of only four Black members of the United States House of Representatives and the only member of Congress to have attended the recent trial of the accused killers of Emmett Till, described the actions of the television networks as “a matter of good taste.” He considered the practice of amending or eliminating “expressions which tend to degrade” to be “in line with the progress of our country.” The NAACP, the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization, applauded the replacement of “any term that denotes a racial slur” when Foster’s songs were broadcast.
Not everyone viewed what the Arkansas Gazette called the “outrageous excision of ‘darky,’ ‘mammy,’ etc., from old Stephen Foster lyrics” as a positive development. Just as Jim Crow was breaking down and racial equality was on the horizon, many white Americans felt that they were losing something precious, and they described these efforts as portents of a world turned upside down. One letter writer to the Shreveport Journal in 1960 described his fear that if the (relatively weak) civil rights bill under consideration in Congress passed, white Southerners would be placed in a subordinate position. “I say we are in Egyptian bondage, with no Moses to bring us out,” he wrote.