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The relocation of migrants by Republican governors recalls painful memories of the ‘Reverse Freedom Rides’

Victoria Bell, left, and her eleven children who arrived in Hyannis on a trip sponsored by a white segregation group in Little Rock, Ark., wave from lawn of Cape Cod Community College where the family will be housed temporarily in a dormitory, May 22, 1962. They are one of two large black families due to arrive in Hyannis today and tomorrow. The president has a summer home in nearby Hyannis Port. (AP Photo/Frank C. Curtin)

(CNN) — The relocation of about 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, initiated last week by Florida’s governor, has revived memories of strikingly similar tactics employed by southern segregationists 60 years ago.

As news of the relocation spread, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library quickly drew historical parallels to the Reverse Freedom Rides during the Kennedy administration.

In 1962, a group of conservatives, intent on retaliating against desegregation efforts during the civil rights movement, funded one-way trips to the north for Black citizens.

Hundreds of Black Americans were transported to cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, recruited by members of a segregationist group called the White Citizens’ Council, with false promises of jobs and housing.

One of the targeted destination points was Hyannis Port — a village on the Cape Cod peninsula — where the largest group of riders arrived in the spring of 1962 before they were provided temporary housing at Camp Edwards near Otis Air National Guard Base.

In what many condemned as the same tactic, the group of migrants sent by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to Martha’s Vineyard this week eventually had to be transported to the same Cape Cod military base to receive shelter and humanitarian support.

“Reverse Freedom Rides are not well known among many people, and it’s important to understand that this tactic of using people as political pawns was used 60 years ago by segregationists and White supremacists,” explained Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston branch.

“It’s important for us to amplify and highlight that parallel, so people can see that this type of racist behavior and these racist tactics are still being used today,” she added.

Migrants enticed by job aid, immigration relief

The migrants on Wednesday’s planes did not know they were being taken to Martha’s Vineyard specifically, and were induced to board planes with “representations of work assistance and immigration relief in Boston,” the Lawyers for Civil Rights group wrote in a news release.

Though DeSantis confirmed he arranged for the flights, the migrants had been in Texas, not Florida. For months, DeSantis has been talking about his plans to get Florida involved in redirecting migrants from the southern border in a way to maximize heartburn for Democratic leaders.

His administration secured $12 million in the state budget to pay for migrant relocation, and he has repeatedly threatened to use the money to send them to liberal strongholds. Martha’s Vineyard had not been expecting the group, and the decision was sharply denounced by the White House, migrants’ advocates and Democratic officials. DeSantis has also come under fire by public officials and citizens of his own state for using Florida taxpayer dollars for the purpose.

The move by DeSantis is part of a series of actions by Republican governors, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, to transport migrants to northern liberal cities and so-called blue states in order to protest the Biden administration’s policies at the southern border.

The two governors have been frequent antagonists of President Joe Biden on immigration and his policies pertaining to the southern border since taking office. Biden, assailing the governors’ tactics, accused the Republicans of “playing politics with human beings” and “using them as props.”

Presidential library draws historical parallels

Representatives of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library pointed to the similarities in the escalating battle between red state leaders and the Biden administration over the US-Mexico border and the revival of Reverse Freedom Rides, a parody of the Freedom Rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1961.

“To embarrass Northern liberals and humiliate Black people, southern White Citizens’ Councils started their so-called “Reverse Freedom Rides,” giving Black people one-way tickets to northern cities with false promises of jobs, housing, and better lives,” the Library recounted in a tweet.

At the time, President John F. Kennedy’s administration received mail from leaders in the targeted states, asking the federal government to intervene in the “cruel merciless hoax” orchestrated by segregationists.

“If they pay the costs of their traffic in human lives and misery their attitude will no doubt change,” read one letter surfaced by the Library, which referred to southern segregationists.

Reverse Freedom Rides conceived by segregationists

The Reverse Freedom Rides were conceived by the White Citizens’ Council, at one point “the most powerful political force organized in opposition to racial integration,” historian Clive Webb, a professor at the University of Sussex in England, wrote in an academic article on the Reverse Freedom Rides published in 2004.

The rides, Webb wrote, were used to restore some of the political power of the White Citizens’ Council and were formed in part as a reaction to White businessmen, civic leaders and parents who saw total opposition to desegregation would harm their communities.

The strategy of the White Citizens’ Council was to use the Reverse Freedom Rides “as a public relations exercise that would at once politically embarrass their Northern liberal critics and thereby reestablish their support among white Southerners.” Northern politicians and newspapers condemned the rides, calling them cruel and inhumane.

White Citizens’ Council members in New Orleans and Little Rock, Arkansas, were instrumental in organizing the rides, according to the article. The campaign was first launched by George Singelmann, who recruited Black families through advertisements 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,” Webb wrote, citing one of the advertisements.

Members of the White Citizens’ Council also recruited at prisons and advertised their “services” to the NAACP. The group made promises of helping Black families find jobs and, in other cases, guaranteed jobs awaited them in their new cities, according to Webb’s research.

The White Citizens’ Council campaign continued until 1963 after support dwindled and funding was exhausted, according to the article.

“The cruelest aspect of the Citizens’ Council campaign is that it undermined the only means by which some impoverished African Americans could withstand the oppressiveness of their lives, a sense of hope,” Webb concluded.

Martha’s Vineyard rushes to help migrants

The suffering of Black citizens who migrated north on the Reverse Freedom Rides “is most starkly illustrated” by the events in Hyannis, where 96 Black Americans were sent over the course of several months, Webb wrote.

By 1965, all but one family remained in Hyannis after the riders soon discovered the jobs promised to them did not exist, his article said.

The riders were put into a forced migration by the White Citizens’ Council and told they should contact the federal government, the NAACP or the National Urban League in an effort to “embarrass” President Kennedy, said Dr. Traci Parker, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts and an expert in the civil rights movement.

“This is all very similar. It makes you wonder what playbook is DeSantis playing out of.” Parker remarked. “This is really part of a history of bigots, of white segregationists who want nothing to do with people of color.”

Another similarity is many Black families who left the south on Reverse Freedom Rides did so freely, because they believed they would find better employment and “escape the horrors of living under such an oppressive regime that was Jim Crow,” Parker added.

But the lessons learned from the earlier Reverse Freedom Rides led to the community in Martha’s Vineyard rushing to welcome and help the displaced migrants as soon as they arrived, Parker stressed.

The towns on the island, as well as community-based and non-profit groups, joined in the effort to offer assistance to the migrants with donations and shelter, food and care, according to a Facebook post from the Dukes County government.

The response from the Martha’s Vineyard community was not surprising to those who have been actively involved in civil rights and human rights issues in Massachusetts, according to Sullivan with the NAACP, because the island has historically been open and welcoming to newcomers.

“The parallels to the Reverse Freedom Rides are important to continue to call out, not just to raise awareness, but to amplify the importance of remembering our collective history; the aspects of it that bring us joy and pride, as well as the aspects of it that bring us shame,” Sullivan said.