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Before migrants were sent to Martha's Vineyard, there were the "Reverse Freedom Rides"

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, about 50 migrants arrived in Martha's Vineyard from Texas on an airplane. Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, paid for their trip to protest President Biden's immigration policies and says Northern cities are better equipped to handle migrants. Critics contend it's a ploy to use human beings as pawns.

Something like this has happened before. Sixty years ago this summer, white supremacists persuaded poor Black families in the South to accept bus tickets north with false promises of a better life. They were known as the reverse freedom rides, and Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WBUR has reported on them for NPR's Code Switch podcast. Gabrielle, thanks so much for being with us.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: What were these reverse freedom rides about?

EMANUEL: So the backdrop here is the Freedom Rides of 1961. That was when a group of civil rights activists rode Greyhound buses south in an effort to integrate the buses - but really, the bus terminals - in the setting of Jim Crow. So that prompted a group of Southern segregationists to retaliate. And they concocted this plan to use the same weapon - the Greyhound bus - and send Southern Blacks north, dropping the largest number near the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod. So their goal was to expose what they saw as the hypocrisy of Northern liberals. These segregationists wanted to prove that Northerners were not so welcoming when large numbers of African Americans showed up on their doorstep. Here is Amis Guthridge, one of the masterminds.

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AMIS GUTHRIDGE: We're going to find out if people like Mr. Ted Kennedy - the Kennedys, all of them - really do have an interest in the Negro people, really do have a love for him - for the Negro - and a desire to help him.

EMANUEL: Now, these segregationists intentionally recruited single Black mothers who relied on welfare and people who were recently released from prison to make sure that they would place a burden on public resources up north. And these Black individuals and families, for their part, were lured onto these buses. They were told there would be jobs and housing awaiting them and even a presidential welcome from the Kennedys. None of this was true.

SIMON: These families arrived in New York, New Hampshire, California, Massachusetts, and nothing they'd been promised were there - right? - no committees, no homes, no Kennedys, almost no money. What happened?

EMANUEL: That's exactly right. It was all false promises. But I will say the local communities rallied. In Hyannis, there was a small committee that formed with the Unitarian Church and the local chapter of the NAACP. One of the committee members was Margaret Moseley, and she was tasked with meeting the buses. She was interviewed in 1994, shortly before her death.

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MARGARET MOSELEY: Most of the people who came had only a shopping bag, nothing beyond a shopping bag with perhaps one change of clothing - no money, knowing nobody.

EMANUEL: And the scheme generated a lot of pushback from businesses and professional organizations. For example, the Automobile Legal Association, which offered tours and kind of emergency roadside services - a bit like AAA - blacklisted both Arkansas and Louisiana, the two states that were sending the largest number of African Americans north. And the general manager said tourists can't relax and learn in a place that traffics in human misery. It was that attitude that prompted Southern newspapers and radio stations to speak out, kind of worrying about their image and the financial implications of boycotts. And in large part, that meant that the scheme became unpopular, and it just kind of fizzled out.

SIMON: What parallels do you see between then and now?

EMANUEL: The fundamental idea underlying all of this - sending vulnerable people north to make a political point - is almost identical. And there are also these false promises of housing and work. And the response from the communities is also similar. There's this outcry, this scrambling to help. Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts is actually using the exact same military base to house the new arrivals. And then, perhaps most striking of all, the language today echoes the past. Take a listen to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaking on Thursday about paying for the planes of migrants that arrived on Martha's Vineyard.

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RON DESANTIS: The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with every day is brought to their front door, they all of a sudden go berserk, and they're so upset that this is happening. And it just shows you, you know, their virtue signaling is a fraud, OK?

EMANUEL: Now, that is similar to what George Singlemann, the architect behind the reverse freedom rides, said to a reporter in 1962.

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GEORGE SINGLEMANN: The ultimate accomplishment, of course, has already been obtained, and that is to focus attention on the hypocrisy of the Northern liberals and the NAACP. They have been crying the theme song on behalf of the Negro throughout the nation. And of course, now when it comes time for them to put up or shut up, they have shut up.

EMANUEL: It is worth noting that there are some major differences. The reverse freedom riders were uprooted from their homes, and they became refugees, which is what they were called at the time, because of this scheme. The migrant families being sent north today are already refugees and don't have a clear home. Another difference - the size of today's scheme has eclipsed the size of the reverse freedom rides by fiftyfold. And finally, in 1962, the scheme was orchestrated by racist extremists. And now, it's elected state officials.

EMANUEL: Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WBUR, thanks so much.

SIMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Gabrielle Emanuel