A Lesson From the Past for Ron DeSantis 

In the 1960s, Southern organizations tried sending African Americans to Northern states in a “cheap” PR stunt designed to embarrass and expose Northern liberals. It didn’t work.
Victoria Bell of Little Rock, Ark., leaves a bus with her 11 children after a trip from Little Rock to Hyannis, Mass., sponsored by a white segregationist group, May 22, 1962. | Frank C. Curtin/AP Photo

In the spring of 1962, David Harris, a short-order cook from Little Rock, Ark., traveled to Hyannis in search of work, with funding and encouragement from Little Rock’s White Citizens’ Council, one of many local organizations comprised of middle-class white professionals who, while dedicated to the preservation of segregation, styled themselves as the respectable, moderate alternative to the Ku Klux Klan.

Earlier that year, council members in New Orleans and Little Rock would offer Black Southerners bus fare and relocation costs to undertake “Reverse Freedom Rides” to Northern cities, where, they told their victims, good jobs and housing awaited them. The idea was to embarrass and expose the hypocrisy of Northern liberals who cheered the real Freedom Rides, but whom, they suspected, would blanch at receiving thousands of Black transplants in their own communities. Harris was just the first of roughly 100 Black Southerners whom the councils shipped to Hyannis.

Throughout the South, Citizens’ Councils as far and wide as Macon, Ga., and Selma, Ala., Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss., lied with impunity, assuring Black residents that jobs and housing awaited them in their new home states. This was never the case, particularly on Cape Cod, where the off-season unemployment rate normally hovered near 20 percent.

But for the most part, Northerners pointed to the Reverse Freedom Rides as yet another example of the South’s deplorability s. It was “a cheap trafficking in human misery on the part of Southern racists,” the New York Times editorialized. The governor of Ohio likened it to “Hitler and his Nazis forcing Jews out of Germany.” Northern senators denounced the White Citizens’ Councils as “cruel and callous,” and demonstrating a “shameful lack of judgement.” When asked to weigh in, President John F. Kennedy, normally restrained in his condemnation of the white South, responded that “it’s a rather cheap exercise.”

The story of the Reverse Freedom Rides assumed new meaning this week when persons seemingly associated with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promised a group of Venezuelan asylum seekers that good jobs and housing, as well as expedited work permits, awaited them in Boston. The migrants were transported instead, without their knowledge, to Martha’s Vineyard, in an attempt to surprise and expose the hypocrisy of liberals who oppose the Republican Party’s hard-line immigration stance.

The two stories share some similar characteristics. In both cases, elected officials attempted to to pin their critics in a corner. In neither case did the ploy immediately succeed, though today’s story has yet to play out.


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