Kansas lawmakers’ flimsy ‘woke’ narrative melts under heat of civil rights history

April 16, 2023 3:33 am
Freedom Riders Head For Jackson, Mississippi

The military guards a bus en route May 26, 1961, from Montgomery, Alabama, as civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders head for Jackson, Mississippi. (Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Kansas legislative leaders have shrieked for weeks about a supposed wild-left “woke” agenda, promising an alternate agenda moored in the protection of mores that remain perfectly safe. They use phrases like “sexualized, woke agenda,” and “radicalized woke agenda.”

The term “woke,” as used by Kansas legislators, seems to serve as shorthand for liberation efforts running counter to white, Christian, conservative narratives.

But this begs the question: How would yesterday’s heroes fare under the woke lens of vague outrage? For instance, was civil rights icon Diane Nash woke? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? Oliver Brown? Measure their sacrificial greatness against current anti-reform rantings, and we see this woke narrative for the hollow trope it is.

Chase Billingham, associate professor of sociology at Wichita State University, said the broad application of wokeness is no accident.

“It means everything and nothing,” Billingham said. “Very much like (what’s been done to) critical race theory. There are real life-and-death issues at stake in politics today, and making the fights about language and terminology distracts from discussions of real policies that have material impacts on the lives of working people.”

It’s a familiar play: Divide, distort and distract, but this flimsy narrative melts under history’s heat.

Sixty years ago this year, segregationists murdered four little girls at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. The bombing nearly derailed Nash’s nonviolent voting rights work. I asked Nash about this years ago when she visited Kansas.

The cover of David Halberstam's "The Children" is pictured next to a note from an inside page signed by Diane Nash
Mark McCormick says: “In preparation for my interview with iconic civil rights activist Diane Nash, I purchased and read ‘The Children’ by the great David Halberstam. When I met Nash in person, she graciously signed my copy.” (Mark McCormick)

Nash, a 1960s student at Nashville’s Fisk University, said while externally composed, terror thrashed in her gut. She worried someone following her might die. She worried she might die.

“I was always so scared,” said Nash, who participated in the perilous Freedom Rides through Alabama and Mississippi, while pregnant.

They expected violence, she said, but at first felt the girls’ murder couldn’t go unanswered. Children had to remain off limits.

“We wouldn’t be able to respect ourselves,” she thought then. “One of the things we considered was making sure that whoever did it, died.”

They ultimately rejected violence, reasoning people could protect their children through the right to vote. They promised God and each other they would make that happen. Barely into their 20s, they signed their will, boarded buses, and bravely drove into crowds of baseball bats, fiery hatred, and flying fists.

John Seigenthaler, the former journalist and assistant to the assistant attorney general in the Kennedy administration, begged Nash to abandon the Freedom Rides. Seigenthaler, whom I’d met as a college journalist when he was American Society of Newspaper Editors board president, understood the dangers.

Southern police conspired with segregationists who burned the buses and attacked the college kids as they stumbled out gasping.

But for her transformational bravery, for her work narrowing the gap between who America claimed to be and what it was, for seeking voting rights for Black Southerners, Nash would be considered “woke” today.

So would civil rights lawyer Don Hollowell, the Kansas native who defended Black clients in front of all-white juries in violently segregated Georgia and once helped free King from prison following a traffic infraction.

So would the Rev. James Reeb, the white, Unitarian minister and Kansas native killed marching for Black voting rights in Alabama. But for Reeb’s martyrdom, we might not have the Voting Rights Act.

So would Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement and so would King, who led the Montgomery bus boycott Parks launched.

So would Bayard Rustin, a lead organizer of the March on Washington, which turns 60 this year.

So would Topekan Rev. Oliver Brown, who believed his daughter shouldn’t have to walk past a school in her neighborhood to attend a segregated school far away.

These examples unmask the woke narrative as a manufactured grievance, derisive shorthand for people inordinately concerned about attacks on civil rights and others who still believe voting is a right and that Democracy is sacred.

Tiny seeds of truth float in some of the claims from the right, but those isolated seeds have been greenhoused into a ginned up crisis, similarly to how professor Harold Hill convinced River City that the presence of a new pool table threatened that town’s morality.

People conscious of systemic injustice used to call themselves “conscious.” Today, consciousness earns practitioners badges of shame.

In the 1984 thriller “The Terminator,” when “Skynet” became “self-aware,” it became an existential threat. In the 1999 sci-fi classic “The Matrix,” the story hinged on people ingesting pills enabling them to surface from semi-consciousness to see how machines had transformed them into batteries powering their own captivity.

So consciousness, whether dystopian or in 2023’s Kansas Legislature, makes you dangerous, particularly when the point seems to divide, distract and distort. Discouraging consciousness enables the weakening of our democracy, bill by agonizing bill. Kleptocracy requires a slumbering public.

Mark Twain once said, “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

He got it mostly right, but these are smart people who know precisely what they’re doing.

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Mark McCormick
Mark McCormick

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas.