Stay "Woke!" Our democracy depends on it

Published February 22, 2024

By Cash Michaels

I have this dear friend, Al McSurely.

Al is a white civil rights attorney in his late 80’s, and an alum of UNC at Chapel Hill.  He took part in the 1960’s civil rights movement, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Atty. Floyd McKissick,“Black Power” founder Stokely Carmichael, and other prominent African-American leaders of the period.

It’s safe to say that Al was, and still is, a member of the so-called “radical left.” 

Back in the late sixties, he and his then wife, Margaret, worked in Pike County, Kentucky, trying to build a white/black political fusion movement,  preaching to dirt poor white coal miners in the Appalachian mountains that black people were not their enemy, and rich coal mine company owners were screwing them all over. 

Well those coal mine owners, as Margaret later told me, didn’t like “outside agitators” coming in to Pike County stirring up “their poor people.”

“Their poor people!”

That’s when local authorities, one night, raided the home of Al and Margaret, who was then pregnant, called them “communists,” confiscated everything they owned, including books like War and Peace and Catch-22, and a poster of Cuban revolutionary Che’ Guevara, and then threw them in jail, charging them with sedition against the state of Kentucky. 

Al and Margaret eventually beat that ridiculous rap (a federal judge ruled that Kentucky’s sedition law was unconstitutional because you can only overthrow the United States, not a state or county) but it took the McSurelys 17 long years to sue and win $1.6 million for their civil and First Amendment rights being violated.

However, before the McSurelys could ever claim justice, a white supremacist threw a stick of dynamite under their Kentucky home one night while Al, Margaret, and their baby boy, Victor, were asleep.

The family survived the blast, but needless to say, you never forget that experience, no matter how old you get.

In later years after becoming an attorney in Chapel Hill, Al specialized in representing discrimination cases like the Keith Edwards racial bias case, where an African-American female UNC police officer was passed over for a well-earned promotion; the UNC housekeepers case, where again, poor hardworking black women weren’t being paid fairly by the flagship university of the state. Just two of the most prominent racial bias cases attorney Al McSurely fought for, and won!

It wasn’t long after before Al became a close adviser to NC NAACP leader Rev. William Barber, and helped to devise much of the multi-racial “Moral Monday” movement that Barber led here in North Carolina to protest the regressive policies of the Republican-led NC General Assembly.

In 2018, I was proud to produce a documentary about Al’s life titled “Al: My Brother.” The one thing I remember Al always saying during the course of our collaboration is how important it was for him, when he was a young UNC student back in the late 1950s, to become “conscious.”

By that, Al meant to become aware of the world he lived in as a young white man in the South, and how racial injustice was shamefully tolerated by the larger white American society. He dedicated his life to fighting for racial equality then, and felt that poor whites and poor Blacks were being suckered into fighting each other, while rich fat cats got what they wanted when no one was paying attention.

If you knew this, then according to Al, you had come into “consciousness,” and you were aware of the awful game and purpose of racism, and how some white politicians used it to keep people divided.

In other words, you were aware, you were awake, and you were “woke.”

Now, according to National Public Radio, the term “woke” is derived from Black Southern culture, meaning exactly what my friend Al said. I cite NPR because they did the research, and determined that in simple terms, to be “woke” means being politically and racially conscious of the social dynamics that govern who you are, where you live, how you were treated and when. 

So if you were a poor “negro” in the South during the early to mid-1900s, then you knew that you were subject to a system of racial discrimination, laws and customs that governed not only where you lived, but where you went to school, how you made your meager living, who you married, and even where you were buried. Same rules applied to your children as well.

For those, like “Governor”wannabe Mark Robinson, who wildly proclaim today that America never practiced systemic racism, please go read a good book. Or better yet, ask someone who has lived through it.

The term “woke” actually dates back to the 1938 Black protest song by legendary folk and blues singer Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who warned “all you colored people” in the tune “Scottsboro Boys” that when they traveled through racist Alabama, to “stay woke, keep their eyes open.” 

Or else!

In the present day, Black pop artists like Erykah Badu and Childish Gambino used the term in their music, and then, in the aftermath of several nationally publicized senseless police killings, the Black Lives Matter Movement refashioned it for their powerful message, to the chagrin of right-wing conservatives. 

Thanks to Republican politicians like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, to name a few, the term “woke” has become a dirty slur encompassing anything conservatives want to smear Democrats and progressive activists for - immigration, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), gay rights, transgender rights, affirmative action, abortion, wearing masks, gun control, you name it.

It’s also a culture war term used to distract Americans from what the right wing is really up to, like insisting on false claims that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” or undermining the truth about the January 6th, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection. 

Or not wanting fact-based African-American history to be taught in our public schools because “sensitive, helpless” little white kids…(awww)…just won’t be able to handle it!


The scheme is so breathtakingly obvious. Fill the common knowledge vacuum with lies, fiction and mistruths, repeat this shameful nonsense daily, if not hourly, and viciously denounce anyone or anything that says otherwise.

Here’s the thing - you don’t have to be a liberal, a radical leftist or a courageous civil rights freedom fighter like my pal, Al McSurely, to be woke. Just take a moment to realize in who’s interest it is that you either become, or stay, blindly angry, racist and ignorant.

Realize who is trying to play you!

In other words, wake up, for goodness sakes. The reason why our country feels like a failure right now, is because Trump and his blind followers need us to feel like failures. 

They need us to fall mentally, emotionally and intellectually asleep, and stay that way!

If you care about truth, justice and our country, let’s all get woke, and stay woke, shall we?

Our democracy depends on it!