Sunday, July 14, 2024

‘Reverse Freedom Rides’: An echo of Martha’s Vineyard migrant flights 60 years ago

‘Reverse Freedom Rides’: An echo of Martha’s Vineyard migrant flights 60 years ago

Eliza Davis was bewildered the day she arrived in a wealthy tourist town on Cape Cod. An agricultural worker, she had been promised work and housing if she took a free trip to another state. Days later, disembarking with her eight children, she had little idea where she was, that a president had a family compound down the road, or that she was a “pawn,” as locals told the New York Times, in a political stunt.

Davis, 36, was not among the migrants who arrived Wednesday in Martha’s Vineyard — a resort island off Cape Cod where former president Barack Obama has a home — courtesy of a flight arranged by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). She was a Black woman from Alabama, bused to and abandoned in Hyannis, Mass., in 1962, not far from the holiday home of President John F. Kennedy.

Today’s migrants in Martha’s Vineyard are now being transported to the same Cape Cod military base that housed the “Reverse Freedom Riders” decades ago.

Migrants sent by Gov. DeSantis to Martha’s Vineyard depart for Cape Cod

It was all part of the so-called Reverse Freedom Rides, arranged by White segregationists in 1962 in retaliation for the Freedom Rides of the previous summer, when Black and White volunteers rode buses through the South supporting desegregation.

The plot was organized by white supremacist Citizens’ Councils in Arkansas, who bought radio ads and made fliers advertising the “opportunity” to African Americans.

They focused on recruiting men with criminal records and single mothers with a lot of children, cynically presuming White liberals would welcome them the least.

Lela Mae Williams, an Arkansas woman who was also dropped off in Hyannis with her nine youngest children, was dressed in her finest clothes, because she had been told Kennedy himself was going to greet them when they arrived, according to 2020 NPR report. She had packed little else, because anything she needed was going to be provided, she was told.

Along with the new arrivals, local Hyannis officials received anonymous letters, according to the Times, saying things like, “Abe Lincoln sowed the seeds and now the North can reap the harvest,” and “We have put up with millions of n—— for 100 years, so why should you squawk?”

It was a contrast to the Great Migration of the previous decades, during which White residents did everything they could to stop Black workers from leaving.

Families would often have to sneak to the train station under cover of darkness or use other subterfuge to escape, described in detail by historian Isabel Wilkerson in her book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”

Southern segregationist groups baldly deceived Black families using tactics “consciously parodying the Freedom Rides,” noted Clive Webb, an American history professor at the University of Sussex, in a 2004 paper on the Reverse Freedom Rides. The Greater New Orleans Citizens’ Council ran newspaper ads in 1962 promising “Free Transportation plus $5.00 for Expenses to any Negro Man or Woman or Family (no limit to size) who desire to migrate to the Nation’s Capital or any city in the north of their choosing.” Notices were also posted in prisons, offering free transportation to prisoners whose sentences were set to expire, Webb found.

The largest contingent of riders traveled from Little Rock to Hyannis. Amis Guthridge, an attorney and president of the Capitol Citizens’ Council in Little Rock, hoped to test Edward Kennedy, who was campaigning for a seat in the U.S. Senate, wrote Webb. “President Kennedy’s brother assures you a grand reception to Massachusetts,” said the council’s recruitment posters. “Good jobs, housing etc. are promised.”

Then, as now in Cape Cod, many residents of Hyannis met the riders with open arms. A local committee formed to provide housing, clothing and money to the new arrivals.

Davis and at least 50 others, including 33 children, were housed in the dormitory of a nearby community college; others were housed in private homes, and later, a nearby Army barracks was used until they could be placed with jobs and housing in the surrounding area.

Massachusetts Gov. John Volpe condemned the rides as “traffic in human misery.”

“The only way to meet such cruelty is by wisdom and love,” Episcopal Bishop Anson Phelps Stokes Jr. told the Associated Press. He urged residents to “show understanding and compassion.”

The welcome was not universal. When the Massachusetts governor asked for federal help, the Kennedy administration declined.

Kennedy called it “a rather cheap exercise” but otherwise avoided the issue.

JFK was tested by white supremacists. Here’s what he finally did about it.

In New York, when a few dozen Black people arrived from Louisiana, city officials paid the bus fare for at least six to return to their home state, according to the Times.

Some of the Southerners sent to Hyannis got jobs as cooks or chambermaids or in candle-making factories, according to a 1964 column in the Boston Globe. When the summer ended, the jobs in Hyannis dried up. All but one family left. Victoria Bell, who appears in the photo at the top of this story, lived in Hyannis for the rest of her life, working as a nurse to the elderly and volunteering to help the poor, according to news clippings in the Barnstable Patriot. At least one of her children made the honor roll at school, and some still live in the area. Bell died in 2000.

Within a few years, Lela Mae Williams and her kids ended up in a Boston housing project, where the family struggled without nearby relatives, one of her daughters told NPR’s “CodeSwitch” in 2020. Racist White neighbors resented their presence in public schools and harassed them.

The Reverse Freedom Rides ended up backfiring politically, Webb argued, because even “moderate” segregationists were put off by the “cynical manipulation” of poor African Americans. In Little Rock, the Arkansas Gazette said the scheme “had never been condoned by the better thinking people here.” New Orleans radio and television station WDSU denounced the campaign as “sick sensationalism bordering on the moronic.” A Gallup poll published in June 1962 showed widespread disapproval of the Councils’ tactics among White Southerners.

In the end, only about 200 people were sent on Reverse Freedom Rides — far fewer than the thousands of migrants who have been transported north to D.C., New York and now Massachusetts in the past few months.

On Thursday morning, two buses from Texas dropped off asylum-seeking immigrants in front of Vice President Harris’s residence in Northwest Washington.

There is one big difference between the migrant transports now and the Reverse Freedom Rides of 60 years ago.

In the 1960s, the buses were funded by anonymous people donating to private segregationist groups, which aimed to tell the North “to put up or shut up,” as one New Orleans leader said. DeSantis has not said how the flights he arranged to Martha’s Vineyard were funded, but Tex. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has used state resources and donations for the buses. And both have been eager to take credit.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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