Migrant Buses Compared to 1962 'Reverse Freedom Rides' of Black Families

As the Republican governors of Texas, Arizona and Florida send busloads and planeloads of migrants to liberal bastions in the north to protest President Joe Biden's immigration policies, some have struck a comparison with a dark and mostly forgotten chapter of American history: the Reverse Freedom Rides of 1962.

Since April, governors Greg Abbott of Texas, Doug Ducey of Arizona and Ron DeSantis of Florida have collectively ordered thousands of migrants to be dropped in Democratic-led areas like Washington D.C., New York, Chicago and Martha's Vineyard.

According to many of the migrants who arrived in the small Massachusetts island on Wednesday, those traveling didn't exactly know their destination—but they were promised they would get jobs and housing upon their arrival.

That is not what awaited them in the north. While volunteers and authorities in Martha's Vineyard, Washington D.C. and New York scrambled to take care of the newly arrived migrants, officials have denounced a lack of resources and facilities to face the unexpected challenge coming from the southern states.

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The migrant busing crisis has been compared to the Reverse Freedom buses of 1962, when white southern segregationists tricked hundreds of Black Americans into going north, promising them jobs and housing. In this combination photo, a group of migrants, who boarded a bus in Texas, arrive at Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City on August 25, 2022 (left) and Mrs. Lela Mae Williams of Huttig, Arkansas, arrives in Hyannis with seven of her nine children hoping to find work, Hyannis, Massachussetts, May 23, 1962 (right). YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images and Underwood Archives/Getty Images

For some, the narrative that has guided the migrants to the liberal bastions in the north sounded familiar.

The Boston-based John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has drawn a parallel between the busing migrant crisis and DeSantis' program to fly planeloads of migrants outside of state lines to the Reverse Freedom Rides of 1962, when white southern segregationists tricked hundreds of Black Americans into moving north, promising them they would find jobs and housing in liberal states.

"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 of the 35th U.S. president tweeted on Thursday.

The Reverse Freedom Rides were a parody of the Freedom Rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s, and were made in retaliation against northern liberals and the civil rights movement. Free one-way bus tickets were given to families who were lured into moving north with the promise of high-paid jobs and free housing. Some were even told they would meet President Kennedy.

But none of that happened.

Some 200 people boarded the Greyhound buses to progressive cities in the north, with the largest group—exactly 96 people—destined for Hyannis, Massachusetts—a short distance from Martha's Vineyard where some of today's migrants have been sent.

Hyannis is where the Williams, one of the first families who made it to the north from Arkansas, arrived in the summer of 1962, ready to meet the Kennedys, as they were told.

In 2019, Gabrielle Emanuel, a journalist with Boston public radio station WGBH, interviewed the families who had made the trip, including the Williams. Betty Williams, who was 18 at the time of the move, told WGBH that her mother Lela Mae was trying to give her nine children a better life.

"My mom thought that when she came to the North, she was going to have a better life for her children, better jobs and better housing," she said. "Better everything for all of us."

Reverse Freedom Rides Williams
Lela Mae Williams was given one-way bus tickets for her family and sent to Hyannis, MA, as a "Reverse Freedom Rider" by the Little Rock segregationist citizens council. Nearly 50 travelers, most of them single mothers, were given tickets to Hyannis in an attempt to embarrass President Kennedy for his support of the civil rights movement. Underwood Archives/Getty Images

When they got off the bus in front of the Kennedys' home, there were cameras ready to film the arrivals of the Williams, prompted by the same Louisiana segregationist who had helped spearhead the Reverse Freedom Rides, Amis Guthridge.

While the then-president wasn't there to greet the Black family, civil rights activist Margaret Moseley was there, and she told WGBH in 2019 that the event "was one of the most inhuman things I have ever seen."

While Guthridge and George Singelmann —the original organizer of the rides— said that the Reverse Freedom Rides program was born "in a spirit of beneficence and humanitarianism," Moseley told WGBH she knew that the Black families were only pawns in a segregationist game.

While many found jobs and housing in the north eventually, some didn't. And life for the uprooted families was much different than the one they had envisioned before moving north.

'Pulling From A Playbook': The Migrant Busing Crisis

According to Abbott's office, more than 9,400 migrants have been dropped off in Washington since April—now likely over 9,500 with those left outside Vice President Kamala Harris' residence on Thursday—and more than 2,100 have been sent to New York. Since May, Arizona has sent 43 buses to Washington, D.C., transporting at least 1,500 migrants who are mainly from Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, according to Ducey.

On Wednesday, DeSantis claimed responsibility for flying some 50 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, to Martha's Vineyard. DeSantis said he's helping migrants "to go to greener pastures" in sanctuary jurisdictions.

Others beside the JFK Library are now comparing the Reverse Freedom Rides to the migrant buses and planes sent by Republican governors of southern states to northern liberal states.

"Didn't realize the human trafficking thing was a common Southern segregationist move, brought back by a new generation of race-baiters and haters," wrote on Twitter journalist David Beard.

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Migrants, who boarded a bus in Texas, are dropped off within view of the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, on August 11, 2022. STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

"In 1962, Southern segregationists thought of a way to get at Northern liberals. They tricked Blacks from the South into traveling days by Greyhound to cities in the North and West with the promise of jobs and housing. The stunt was called the Reverse Freedom Rides," Utah Democratic House candidate Darlene McDonald wrote on Twitter.

"Republican Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott pulling from a playbook of many of their Southern predecessors that used the bodies, hopes, and dreams of black and brown people as a political stunt. And this is why we teach history," she wrote.