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The Segregationist Roots of Anti-Woke Ideology

After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregationists 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.

L: Current Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who likes to fight against “woke.” R: Former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, who liked to say “Let’s not put the whammy on mammy.”, Photos by Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images and the Florida Memory Project via the State

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.

Extending and amplifying the language of inversion, an editorial about the reworking of Foster’s lyrics by the networks and prominent performers like Dinah Shore, which was reprinted in the Citizens’ Council (the official publication of the segregationist White Citizens’ Councils that emerged throughout the South after the Brown decision) in 1960, described what Rep. Diggs called a small victory for civility as a catastrophic cultural defeat and a portent of a radical diminution of white political power. “We have almost given professional pleaders like the NAACP power almost equal to that of the early Egyptian Kings,” the editorial proclaimed. Positing a zero-sum view of cultural and political power, it concluded, “Today Negro agitators are not only setting up their own monuments, but, like the Egyptian monarchs, they are destroying the monuments of others, and attempting to rewrite American culture retroactively.” It described those asking for the suspension of racist lyrics as “touchy,” “narrow-minded,” and “petty,” an “arrogant gang” engaged in monument destruction.

Tom Ethridge, whose column in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger was regularly reprinted in the Citizens’ Council publication, condemned the television networks, also employing the language of inversion. NBC and CBS, he argued, in their effort to “salve tender vanities,” had chosen “to trample on the rights of others—including millions of network listeners and viewers who love the songs which allegedly offend Negroes.” He predicted that these “high handed” actions would set off a backlash, and thus “destroy rather than increase racial good will.” Using the language of the Cold War that was at its peak in the mid-1950s, Ethridge described the lyric substitution as “blacklisting Stephen Foster songs.” Others compared these actions to the Soviet Union’s rewriting of history for propaganda purposes.

Politicians weighed in critically as well, many of them calling for the state’s disciplinary apparatus to hold the networks, textbook publishers—some of which had followed suit changing mentions of Foster’s lyrics in their pages—and school boards that adopted these revised texts accountable for what Rep. Robert L. Sikes called “inexcusable … disgraceful censorship,” seeing the changes as a cowardly capitulation to what the newspaper of the White Citizens’ Council called “minority group pressure.” Rep. Frank Chelf argued that the network’s sanctioning of changes in lyrics from “darkies” to “old folks” was emblematic of “an age gone haywire.”

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LeRoy Collins was one of many white politicians who viewed the actions of the networks as “ridiculous.” Long before Ron DeSantis’ “war on woke,” this Florida governor coined his own term: “Let’s not put the whammy on mammy.” Collins also averred that “there are a lot of people who will feel that the networks, not massa, should be put in the cold, cold ground,” referring to the title of an 1852 minstrel song by Foster.

The segregationist war against racial equality, like the contemporary war on woke, was not limited to actions by government officials. Organizations like the White Citizens’ Councils played a significant role. The first branch of the Citizens’ Council formed two months after the Brown decision in Indianola, Mississippi, and the group quickly spread through the state and the rest of the South. This group saw itself as the vanguard of the backlash against the movement toward Black equality; they fought to “preserve white supremacy via economic pressure” and other modes of political action, pledging “eternal resistance to racial integration.”

Among their most common targets were television shows that had interracial casts. “Let’s start a drive throughout the South to have ten million sets follow my example and bar the negro from our homes by way of television,” wrote the author of a letter to the editor of the Citizens’ Council publication in 1956. He urged fellow segregationists to ensure that the show’s sponsors are “notified of our actions.” The following year, E.W. Hooker, who had been the chair of the States’ Rights Democratic Party (aka the “Dixiecrats”) in 1948, published an open letter to the Johnson Wax company. That company was a sponsor of Robert Montgomery Presents, which had aired a show in February featuring an interracial cast. Segregationists launched a similar boycott of the Philco Corporation for its sponsorship of a Television Playhouse episode that they mistakenly thought included an interracial couple. (It turned out that Hilda Simms, who was paired with Sidney Poitier in that show, was actually also Black.) The Ed Sullivan Show was another popular target.

Segregationist boycotters also took on popular companies like the Ford Motor Company and Philip Morris that they claimed supported civil rights. (Ford Motor Company supported the Ford Foundation, and Philip Morris supported the Urban League, both organizations that promoted racial equality—or what the Citizens’ Council called “race mixing” in denouncing the Ford Foundation in December 1956.) As a segregationist leader from Louisiana told reporters Carl T. Rowan and Richard P. Kleeman in 1956, “We expect the dealers to stop Ford’s contributions to the fight for civil rights or there isn’t going to be a damn Ford sold in the South.”

Even as segregationists employed boycotts as an extension of their politics, they cried foul when economic pressure was employed against them. In 1957, columnist Ray Tucker described Washington, D.C., as being “under NAACP siege” since its two professional sports teams, the Senators and the Redskins, were “picketed regularly because neither organization has a colored player on its roster.” Tucker called this a “cultural offensive” that he connected with that organization’s insistence that “Stephen Foster’s ballads be censored.”

We can also find precedent for several familiar modes of anti-woke rhetoric in the battle against racial equality. Segregationists complained about what they took to be the constraints on free thought pushed by civil rights extremists. One example of this was the conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler’s 1955 piece, later reprinted in the Citizens’ Council, on how the word “racist” had become a “smear word.” This slur, he argued, “is to be spat out, even in print, an accusation of some vicious crime placing the defendant beyond some pale. It presumes automatic condemnation without trial.” Pegler argued, “A racist is a person who approves his own race and prefers the society of his own people.”

This became an enduring line of argument. In the 1980s, Jesse Helms, in arguing against the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, repeated Pegler’s argument, along with the conservative columnist Paul Harvey. And in 2017, Paul Joseph Watson, the British right-winger, similarly claimed that it had become a “new smear word against anyone who opposes leftist agendas.”

The idea that being sensitive about language that Black people considered offensive was dangerous—a kind of nascent “political correctness” argument—was widely repeated. Chelf, the Kentucky congressman who condemned the network censoring of Foster’s songs, said that “if we follow the same logic of the networks” then “we may have to change the name of the White House because this might conceivably be classified as discrimination.” Highlighting this slippery-slope logic, he asked, “If you can censor a folk song which is part of American history, where does it stop?” Along these lines, leading conservative intellectual Russell Kirk, complaining about the proliferation of Black Studies programs in the late 1960s, asked in one of his syndicated columns, “Why do we hear of no ‘white studies’ programs?

Opponents of racial equality regularly invoked a recently invented term—brainwashing—to describe their feeling that progressive forces were using the media in a sustained propaganda campaign to make segregation seem “unconstitutional, un-American, un-Christian and unscientific,” as a Georgia publisher complained in 1957. One segregationist complained in a letter to the Arkansas Gazette in 1956 that “Anti-Southern forces are now conducting the greatest brainwashing campaign in the history of the world,” and that, if it were to succeed, “our Southern Way of Life will be lost forever and our proud white race will be doomed to mongrelization and extinction.” A Citizens’ Council editorial titled “Brainwashing Babies” complained about a poster in public transit that said, “Keep her free from racial and religious prejudice.” That modifier is regularly used today, as in Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s 2021 description of critical race theory as “the left’s effort to brainwash our children.”

Another popular backlash trope of segregationists was the fear that “the civil rights planners hope to force their ideas down the throats of the people of the nation,” as the Citizens’ Council claimed in March 1956. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus also condemned the federal government for “cramming integration down our throats” during the Little Rock crisis of 1957. Recently, popular podcaster Joe Rogan, in criticizing Target for selling trans-friendly swimwear, employed similar language to describe his feeling that the sale of clothing at a department store was like an aggressive form of humiliation: “Enough, stop shoving this down our throats!

Recent coverage of the boycotts of Bud Light and Target for their trans-friendly ad campaigns and merchandising suggest that they are a new thing under the sun. But this brief survey of segregationist culture wars puts such actions in context. Charlie Kirk, who recently wondered aloud whether his household condiments are “literally” woke, is far from the first conservative activist to worry that seemingly mild acts of outreach to marginalized groups by corporations might be the warning signs of an imminent civilizational war that would weaken the political power and moral standing of him and other like-minded citizens, a revolution that would require a coordinated and equally aggressive response.

The economic campaigns against Ford and other putatively pro–civil rights companies were mostly flops, as a 1959 article about a segregationist boycott in Little Rock noted. In contrast, the boycotts of Target and Bud Light have thus far been surprisingly effective. However, it remains to be seen whether they will have staying power or will soon fade, as did the segregationist boycotts that also began with much fanfare. (A headline in the Citizens’ Council in March 1956 announced that Philip Morris had suffered “a 17 per cent loss in Cigarette sales.”) Similarly, it is unclear how far the anti-woke platform of DeSantis—whose current standing in the polls suggests that Trump might be correct about the political limitations of anti-wokeism—will take him in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. While it is too soon to judge the effectiveness of the current war against woke, one thing should be clear: It is less a novel form of politics than a new iteration of an enduring style of backlash politics—one that, if history is any guide, is likely to return, even as the particular targets change.

Lawrence B. Glickman is the Stephen and Evalyn Milman professor of American studies in the department of history at Cornell University and the author, most recently of Free Enterprise: An American History.

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