For some Black families used as pawns in a political ruse by White segregationists many decades ago, the act of Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard brings back memories of a familiar, ugly past.
According to The Washington Post, the migrants in Martha’s Vineyard were reportedly transported to the same military facility on Cape Cod as the “Reverse Freedom Riders,” Blacks who were allegedly duped by White segregationists in 1962 as retaliation for the Freedom Rides of the previous summer, when volunteers rode buses through the South in support of desegregation.
The plan back then was orchestrated by the white supremacist Citizens’ Councils in Arkansas, who purchased radio ads and created fliers advertising the “opportunity” to African Americans. They marketed to men with criminal records and single mothers with a lot of children, assuming White liberals would welcome them the least.
Alabama mother of eight Eliza Davis, 36, an agricultural laborer who had been promised employment and lodging in exchange for taking a free trip to another state, was among those uprooting their families. In 1962, Davis and her kids were bussed to Hyannis, Massachusetts — not far from then-President John F. Kennedy’s vacation home — and left there.
Lela Mae Williams, an Arkansas mom also dropped off in Hyannis with her nine youngest children, arrived wearing her best clothes because she was told that Kennedy himself would welcome them. One of Williams’ daughters told NPR’s “CodeSwitch” in 2020 that the family eventually moved into a Boston housing complex, where they suffered without any relatives nearby and were harassed by racist white neighbors, who disapproved of them attending public schools.
President Kennedy dodged the subject, referring to the Reverse Freedom Rides as “a fairly cheap exercise.” His administration turned down the governor of Massachusetts’ request for federal assistance.
In a 2004 dissertation on the Reverse Freedom Rides, American history professor Clive Webb of the University of Sussex stated that Southern segregationist organizations blatantly misled Black families using strategies parodying the Freedom Rides.
There were recruitment posters that read, “President Kennedy’s brother assures you a grand reception to Massachusetts. Good jobs, housing etc. are promised,” The Post reported. The Greater New Orleans Citizens’ Council advertised in newspapers that it would provide free transportation plus $5 for any Black individual or families looking to “migrate to the Nation’s Capital or any place in the north of their choice.”
Webb said there were also notices placed in jails offering free transportation to inmates whose sentences were about to end.
Some of the Southerners transported to Hyannis found employment as chefs, chambermaids or in candle-making factories. Jobs in Hyannis eventually ended, and all but one relocated family — that of volunteer nurse Victoria Bell — departed.
According to Webb, “moderate” segregationists were turned off by the manipulation of low-income African Americans, which is part of what led to the Reverse Freedom Rides’ political failure. The Arkansas Gazette reported that the strategy was never supported by its “better thinking folks,” and it was criticized by New Orleans radio and television station WDSU as “sick sensationalism bordering on the moronic,” The Post reported.
The buses were paid for in the 1960s by unidentified donors to private segregationist organizations. While DeSantis has not disclosed how the flights he organized to Martha’s Vineyard were financed, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — also a Republican — utilized state funds and donations for the buses.
In the end, in the early ’60s, fewer than 200 persons were dispatched up north on Reverse Freedom Rides. That’s a stark contrast to the thousands of migrants who have recently been sent to Massachusetts, New York, Washington, D.C. and other locations.
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