Political Education

‘Stay Woke’

The Use and Misuse of Language.

After the Democratic defeats in the November 2021 elections, Democratic activist James Carville said

“What went wrong is just stupid wokeness?”

James Carville

He was referring to other activists’ comments such as ‘defund the police’.

“Some of these people need to go to a ‘woke’ detox center or something.”

James Carville

Carville went on to say that Democrats need to talk

“about things that are relevant to people” and “get rid of this left-wing nonsense, this claptrap I hear… we have got to stop. We have got to get off of this. These people have got to understand they’re not popular around the country. People don’t like them. And they’re voting because that’s the only way that they can express themselves and how much they disagree with this​…”

James Carville

Firing back, progressive Democrat Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said:

“The average audience for people seriously using the word ‘woke’ in a 2021 political discussion are James Carville and Fox News pundits… So that should tell you all you need to know.”

Representitve Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Ocasio-Cortez Tweeted,

“And before people disingenuously complain “woke” is denigrating to older people, it’s actually pundits like Carville using terms like “woke” to insult voters under 45 that’s denigrating. Don’t wonder why youth turnout falls when Dems talk about them like this. We need everyone.”

Representitve Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

With all due respect to both Carville and Ocasio-Cortez, the term ‘stay woke’ is not a misleading and self-inflicted political wound like ‘defund the police’. ‘Stay woke’ is a term from the 1930s that still, unfortunately, has meaning today.

The Scottsboro Boys

In 1931 nine black youths were convicted of raping two white girls on a freight train just outside of Scottsboro, Alabama. NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White said of the Scottsboro locals that

“all wanted the Negroes killed as quickly as possible in a way that would not bring disrepute upon the town. They, therefore, preferred a sentence of death by a judge to a sentence of death by a mob, but they desired the same result.”

Walter WhiteL Executive Secretary of the NAACP

In 1935, the Supreme Court 8-0 ruling in Norris v. Alabama reversed the conviction of one of the young men due to the systematic and arbitrary exclusion of qualified blacks from juries, which is a denial of equal protection.

Lead Belly

Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, known as ‘Lead Belly’ wrote a 1938 protest song about the Scottsboro Boys situation:

“Go to Alabama and ya better watch out
The landlord’ll get ya, gonna jump and shout
Scottsboro Scottsboro Scottsboro boys
Tell ya what it all about”

Heddie Ledbetter aka “Lead Belly”

“I made this little song about down there … So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

Heddie Ledbetter aka “Lead Belly”

Stay Woke

This week saw the start of the trial of three white men accused of last years shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, who had been jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. The jury selected was composed of eleven whites and only one black juror. The judge said that the jury selection process appeared to have been the result of “intentional discrimination”, but allowed that jury to be empanelled anyway.

Carville and Ocasio-Cortez are right when they say that some words, phrases, and slogans such as ‘defund the police’ are unnecessarily divisive, misleading, misused, and lead to self inflicted political wounds. But other phrases and words ase true and speak to our condition today. Sadly, ‘Stay Woke’ is as relevant today as it was in Lead Belly’s day.

Learn more about the Scottsboro Boys at:

Other sources:


Thanks and a tip of the hat to The Library of Congress @ Flickr Commons for the image of Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter.

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