People sit on the steps of Federal Hall near a statue of George Washington Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in New York. Credit: Frank Franklin II / AP

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Was George Washington woke?

As I write my annual tribute to America’s great leader as his birthday is celebrated, he has come   under attack from critics who find he was not woke enough. He was a slave owner.

That view overlooks much of his exceptional life. Even by today’s understanding, Washington could qualify for being called woke, though it might not have mattered to him.

“Woke” as a label grows out of an effort to get people to accept the belief that the legacy of slavery remains present in virtually every part of American political and economic life. This belief is about “systemic racism” and the academic study of “critical race theory.”

The term “woke” does not mean the same thing to everybody.

Some “woke” people use it as an accusation against leaders who, they claim, have developed and benefitted from the American political system and economy by abusing their dominant position at the expense of slaves and their descendents. The charge goes back in history to revered leaders like Washington.

Washington is attacked for having excluded Africans from the Army in the Revolutionary War. He owned slaves and sought the recapture of escapees throughout most of his life. He would split up Black families. He does not deserve our respect, the critics claim.

As a Virginian, he lived the life of his times. The criticism of him assumes he should have exercised the wisdom of our times. His actions anger his critics, leading them to ignore how unusual he was for his times.

They choose to overlook how his life developed. As commanding general, he changed his policy and   Blacks entered the Army, including 5,000 who saw combat for the American side. That act was exceptional. Only at the end of World War II were Black soldiers assigned front-line combat roles. A friend of Washington’s reported that he resolved as president to   support the North if the country split apart over slavery.

He mandated that his slaves would be freed upon the death of his wife, but she freed them soon after his passing. The U.S. did not   abolish slavery until almost 70 years later and only after a raging Civil War.

With anti-Semitism growing in recent years, he assured the   Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, of their equality with other citizens. He understood that Jews had provided loyal support for the Revolutionary War.

Washington’s life shows “woke” is absurd when it would rewrite history by trying to erase people and their acts. We learn from history. What worked and what didn’t work? How was progress achieved? Did people gain mainly by exploiting other people? There’s a record with answers showing success and failure. Both are worth understanding.

The   Black Lives Matter movement is an expression of the effort to raise awareness of continued injustice in American society. The shocking killing of Blacks who are alleged by police to have committed minor offenses fuels frustration and anger. The “All Lives Matter” response is both true and intentionally misleading.

The BLM movement is meant to get people to understand that equal justice remains a goal, not an achievement. It could focus more on where George Washington ended than on where he started from.

‘Woke” has become a negative word for some people. They are not responsible for slavery, and they resent being accused of being its unconscious beneficiaries. They reject complicating their lives to deal with guilt they do not feel but sense could be imposed on them to pay reparations.

Of course, some people believe in their own racial superiority. To them,   opposing “woke” may be a barely disguised way of expressing their discredited opinions. They see critical race theory as a threat. To them, the election of Barack Obama was an affront, not a milestone.

Yet there are disadvantaged and deprived people in society, and it is fair to draw attention to their condition. “Woke” is an old word and it means to awaken. It’s used to make people aware of the need to help the less fortunate so the promise of equal opportunity can be realized.

Today, right-wing Republicans have attacked “woke” as a way of   attacking government’s role in helping poor and middle-income people improve their lives. They blindly ignore how much government has helped them to attain their positions. They often defend a past that cannot survive in a changing world.

George Washington provided a good example. Like everybody else, he was not perfect. He exploited others. But he did not cling to the unjust, old ways. As a good general and an excellent statesman, he moved the country beyond its colonial origins in directions that could lead to greatness. That looks easier now than it was then.

Washington should be remembered not only as a leader but for his ability to learn and   change.    

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.