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Reverse Freedom Rides: Flying Migrants North, Florida Gov. Steals Page from Segregationists 60 Years Ago

StorySeptember 20, 2022
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As human rights advocates denounce efforts by Republicans to send dozens of buses full of asylum seekers to sanctuary cities across the United States, we look at the related history of the Reverse Freedom Rides of 1962, when Southern segregationists bused Black families to the North to antagonize Northern liberals and civil rights activists. Mwalim Peters, English and Black studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, recounts the little-known story of the Reverse Freedom Rides and says the strategy to humiliate liberals is “basically identical to what’s happening now in Martha’s Vineyard” and other sanctuary cities, where Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott are sending asylum seekers under false pretenses of free housing and jobs. Instead, they find themselves being used as a media stunt and stranded. “We’re looking at any number of, basically, potentially criminal infractions, let alone just moral and ethical,” he adds.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Human rights advocates are denouncing ongoing efforts by Republicans to send dozens of buses full of asylum seekers to sanctuary cities across the United States. In Texas, a San Antonio-area sheriff has launched a criminal investigation into whether recruiters tricked a group of 48 asylum seekers into boarding flights that took them ultimately to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The Boston Globe reports the migrants, who were mostly from Venezuela, were approached by a tall blond woman promising free transportation to Boston. Lawyers for the migrants say she also gave them a brochure with false information. The Massachusetts-based Lawyers for Civil Rights shared the brochure online, with, quote, “numerous false promises to our clients, including of work opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance, in order to induce them to travel,” unquote. Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said Monday the asylum seekers were instead unceremoniously left stranded.

SHERIFF JAVIER SALAZAR: Our understanding is that a Venezuelan migrant was paid what we would call a bird dog fee to recruit approximately 50 migrants from the area around a migrant resource center on San Pedro here in San Antonio. As we understand it, 48 migrants were lured — and I will use the word “lured” — under false pretenses into staying at a hotel for a couple of days. They were taken by airplane — at a certain point, they were shuttled to an airplane, where they were flown to Florida and then eventually flown to Martha’s Vineyard, again, under false pretenses, is the information that we have, that they were promised work, they were promised the solution to several of their problems. They were taken to Martha’s Vineyard, from what we can gather, for nothing — for little more than a photo op, video op, and then they were unceremoniously stranded in Martha’s Vineyard.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis took credit for sending the asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard, saying it’s part of a broader scheme by Republican governors to bus or fly migrants to states controlled by Democrats, and vowed to push forward on a $12 million state-funded program to relocate so-called unauthorized aliens to so-called sanctuary cities.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: I got $12 million for us to use, and so we are going to use it. And you’re going to see more and more, but I’m going to make sure that we exhaust all those funds, because I think it’s important. I think people want to see that we’re actually standing up and trying to protect the state against Biden’s really, really reckless policies.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as reporter Judd Legum tweeted that “One of the planes used in DeSantis’ Martha’s Vineyard stunt is currently scheduled to travel tomorrow from San Antonio, to Florida, to a small airport near Biden’s house in Delaware,” unquote. Just last Thursday, about a hundred asylum seekers from Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela were dropped off in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’s residence in Washington, D.C. The buses were sent from Texas by Republican Governor Greg Abbott. This is an asylum seeker from Venezuela.

DAVID MORALES: [translated] It was a very long trip, quite tough. We didn’t expect to be left adrift here without knowing where to head to. Our objective is to reach New York.

AMY GOODMAN: As the White House denounces Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott for busing and flying asylum seekers to liberal states, we turn now to look at a largely forgotten piece of U.S. history. This has happened before. It was the Reverse Freedom Rides of 1962, when white segregationists tied to the white supremacist Citizens’ Councils bused African Americans to Northern areas, including Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where President John F. Kennedy had a summer home in Hyannis. Black families were promised good jobs and free housing, only to find out they had been tricked.

The Boston public media outlet GBH has closely documented the legacy of the Reverse Freedom Rides. In 2019, the station produced a short documentary titled The Long Journey North. This is Betty Williams, who arrived in Hyannis, Massachusetts, with her family after being tricked into leaving their home in Arkansas.

BETTY WILLIAMS: My mother was told she was going have better everything. She was going to have a job, and she was going to be able to support her family, and her children was going to be able to get an education, you know, be able to go to school. You know, that alone was not the truth. …

I guess when you get to be an adult, you just kind of block out things, the things you just don’t want to remember. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t remember a lot about the bus. All I know, I was on a bus, and I remember them giving me a ticket or something like that, whatever. I don’t know if — I don’t know how much money they gave me. I don’t even remember none of that stuff.

This is me and my mom. That’s me, and that’s my wonderful mother, who has gone on to be with the Lord. We didn’t really have anything. We just had our clothing. We didn’t have furniture and stuff like that we can bring here.

AMY GOODMAN: Betty Williams, speaking in the short GBH documentary The Long Journey North about the Reverse Freedom Rides of 1962, 60 years ago. The documentary also featured archival clips of two architects of the Reverse Freedom Rides, the segregationists Amis Guthridge and George Singelmann.

REPORTER: What do you suppose will be the ultimate accomplishment of this program?

GEORGE SINGELMANN: The ultimate accomplishment, of course, has already been obtained. And that is to focus attention on the hypocrisy of the Northern liberals and the NAACP, Urban League and people like that, especially.

AMIS GUTHRIDGE: We intend to continue it until those people in the majority tell those politicians we are through with this foolishness about civil rights and things that you’re using for political purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Cape Cod, where the asylum seekers who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard are now being held on an Army base. We’re joined by Mwalim Peters, professor of English and Black studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He’s also commissioner for the Barnstable County Human Rights Advisory Commission and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Professor. It’s so important to have you here today. As you see what happened with these asylum seekers flown to Martha’s Vineyard, talk about what happened 60 years ago.

MWALIM PETERS: Well, speaking to 60 years ago, 1962, the White Citizens’ Council, which was an organization in the South and viewed themselves as a — viewed themselves as more moderate than the Ku Klux Klan, but basically also a white supremacist organization. And in efforts to humiliate, as they saw, Northern Democrats, Northern liberals, particularly the Kennedy family, this was a stunt pulled where they put impoverished people — this would be coming from Arkansas, Mississippi, the Carolinas and Georgia — put impoverished people on buses and sent them directly to Main Street in Hyannis. The idea was — and told them that the Kennedys would be there to welcome you — and, basically, identical to what’s happening now on Martha’s Vineyard, where they were promised all sorts of things — in fact, some were even given money — and were sent to Hyannis. And, of course, this was an idea — the idea was to humiliate the — even as the clip you mentioned pointed out, the target was to humiliate the Kennedys, the NAACP and the Urban League.

And what we found was the stunt did not work. Now, we have to first look at the fact that 1962 Hyannis was not exactly a multicultural melting pot. You still had — you had considerable segregation on Cape Cod, in fact — something that a lot of people don’t like to acknowledge, but segregation did exist in the North and was prevalent in the North, especially when you got north of New York City. And this, of course, was known by the White Citizens’ Councils. So the idea was, “Let’s show the hypocrisy.” What happened instead was, getting wind of this, the Kennedy family and the branch of the NAACP actually were prepared and actually were able to provide some kind of welcome, some kind of support, some kind of assistance for the busloads of people who were transported up to Hyannis. So the stunt really didn’t work. Instead of demonstrating hypocrisy, it was an opportunity to demonstrate, “No, we stand behind what we say.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mwalim Peters, I’m wondering — Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and six members of your state’s congressional delegation called on the Treasury Department to investigate DeSantis for using federal COVID-19 relief funds to fly the asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard. Your reaction to that? And to your knowledge, is that true that the governor was using COVID moneys?

MWALIM PETERS: To my knowledge, that is the understanding, that this was relief funding that was being used, and this was how he designated the best use of the funding. Of course, when you consider how much of the population of the state of Florida lives at or below poverty level, that’s remarkably irresponsible, especially given the fact that we’re still dealing with the pandemic. You know, despite President Biden’s announcement, we’re still very much dealing with the pandemic, especially in poorer areas. But, no, this requires some investigation.

There are a number of things about what has taken place that require a level of investigation. In accord with the sheriff’s investigation, we’re looking at issues that would basically be human trafficking. We’re looking at issues of: How many of these asylum seekers are undocumented? So, this is improper transportation of, basically, undocumented asylum seekers. You know, beside being remarkably irresponsible, aside from being a human rights violation, you’re sending people and stranding them in areas, and you’re not even concerned about your sending people into these areas and stranding them. But we’re looking at human rights violations. We’re looking at potential human trafficking. We’re looking at any number of, basically, potentially criminal infractions, let alone just moral and ethical.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering also, the — there are some critics of this who say that Governors Abbott and DeSantis are, in effect, trying to — in a situation where increasingly, as a result of the Supreme Court decision on abortion, there was a gathering steam among Democrats for the — toward the election in November, that now these Republican governors are trying to utilize immigration as a way to raise this issue just before the election to curry favor among more conservative voters for the Republican Party. I’m wondering your thoughts about that, and also that Governor DeSantis — most of these folks are Venezuelan, and there’s been a sharp increase in Venezuelans at the border, apprehended at the border, in the last few months. And Florida happens to be the state with the largest Venezuelan population in the country. And Venezuelans are, in fact, the fastest-growing Latino group in recent years in the country. I’m wondering your thoughts about those two issues.

MWALIM PETERS: Ah, loaded deck. I’m sorry. With the issue of immigration, that is something that continually comes up. What we have to look at is American history, and we have to look at the fact that when we look at American history, we also have to acknowledge the fact that a foundation principle of the United States is white supremacy. So, therefore, the presence of Brown and Black people, other than as chattel, were constantly a problem and constantly an issue. When we look at human trafficking, we look at the deportation of Native people. Wampanoag, Nipmuc and Narragansett people, in particular, were exported to the Bahamas, were exported to Europe, were exported to North Africa, were exhibited in parts of Europe, for example. When you consider human trafficking, the transatlantic slave trade, this is a big piece of American history.

So, moving Black and Brown people around the country against — you know, as human rights violations, or moving them around the world as a human rights violation, is very much, if you think about it, an American tradition. And then, when you look at people like DeSantis and like Abbott and the whole notion of the MAGA movement, “Make America Great Again,” you know, the undercurrent of the “Make America Great Again” is to go back to these foundation principles, before Black and Brown people were human beings, when we were flora and fauna, basically, of this country. And this is the treatment that you see still taking place to this day.

AMY GOODMAN: Mwalim Peters, do you think this will backfire against these Republican governors? The Washington Post had a piece that at the time, 60 years ago, a New Orleans radio station denounced the campaign as “sick sensationalism bordering on the moronic.” A Gallup poll then showed widespread disapproval of the White Citizens’ Councils’ tactics even among white Southerners. We have 10 seconds.

MWALIM PETERS: This is going to backfire. It’s going to backfire considerably, because you do have to remember that you have a considerable red populace still up in these states, and they’re being impacted right along with. You have a number of Republicans who own homes on Martha’s Vineyard.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Professor Mwalim Peters of English and Black studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, also commissioner for the Barnstable County Human Rights Advisory Commission, member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, speaking to us from Cape Cod. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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