State Watch

Migrant dumps carry echoes of Reverse Freedom Rides, observers say

Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP
A woman, who is part of a group of immigrants that had just arrived, holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes of immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration’s failed border policies. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) garnered outrage after he chartered a plane to carry 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in early September. 

The move, he argued, was meant to shed light on the crisis states along the southern border face amid an overwhelming number of migrant crossings.  

But some advocates and lawmakers of color argue these relocations are reminiscent of something more sinister — when white supremacist groups bused Black families to the North under false pretenses.

In a recent letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Democratic lawmakers led by Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said the move was “rooted in racism and xenophobia.” 

“In 1962, southern White Citizen Councils started ‘Reverse Freedom Rides’ to remove Black people from their states based on false promises,” the letter said, adding that the actions of DeSantis — along with those of fellow Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona — are no different.

“Racism in the United States has a long history in the removal of unwanted racialized individuals,” said Jasmine Gonzales Rose, professor of law at Boston University and the chair of policy for the school’s Center for Antiracist Research. “Racism often manifests as this physical, spatial exclusion of persons from one place to another.”

Many are familiar with the Freedom Rides of 1961, organized by the Congress of Racial Equity, when an interracial group rode buses into the Deep South. Their goal was to test the Supreme Court’s 1960 ruling in Boynton v. Virginia, which declared segregation on interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional. But the Freedom Riders faced violence from Southerners on these trips, including having at least one bus burned and riders brutally attacked.

Southern segregationists responded with the so-called Reverse Freedom Rides.

“This was an effort for segregationists to send those Black people who they deemed as rabble-rousers or people that were stirring up political activism on the part of African Americans [to the North],” said Myisha Eatmon, assistant professor of African and African American studies and history at Harvard University. 

“It was an effort to remove undesirables — people that didn’t necessarily fit the ideal of the Southern white societies,” she said.

Eatmon added that, at the time, white Southerners were incensed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

Many of those angry white Southerners banded together to form White Citizens’ Councils and began to strategize ways to resist integration.

“Some towns would form private schools and offer vouchers for white families that wanted their students to attend all white schools,” Eatmon explained. “The Citizens Councils used intimidation in order to push back against integration — there could be economic reprisals, there could be social reprisals. They don’t get as much attention as the Ku Klux Klan because of how prominent Klan violence was in the 1920s and ’30s, but they [were] a force of folks who didn’t want to comply with integration.”

In 1962, George Singelmann, a segregationist and member of the Greater New Orleans Citizens’ Council, orchestrated the first Reverse Freedom Ride.

“Essentially what [the Citizens’ Council] did was trick African Americans into leaving Southern cities, sending them to the North with the promise of employment, in order to force Northern politicians’ hand at taking a stance on Black wards of the state,” Eatmon said. 

Families were sent to New York City, Washington, D.C., and other places where the politicians had been vocal about integration and public welfare.

The White Citizens’ Councils also targeted newly returning citizens from incarceration, family households headed by single mothers and families with high numbers of children, added Rose of Boston University.

“They were individuals who had been targeted because they were vulnerable, living in poverty, trying to support their families and so forth, and who are also enduring racism in the South,” she said.

Some 200 families were affected by these Reverse Freedom Rides, though Rose said the Citizens’ Councils initially wanted to relocate up to 2,000 Black families. 

A spokesperson for Abbott’s office vehemently denied the comparisons in a statement to The Hill, adding the migrants they bused were fully aware of which cities they would be relocated to.

“This is a garbage attempt to deflect from the hypocrisy of Democrat mayors not wanting to fulfill their self-declared sanctuary city promises,” said spokeswoman Renae Eze. “Where was all this condemnation and outrage as President Biden flew planeloads of migrants across the country, oftentimes in the cover of night? Mayors Adams, Bowser, and Lightfoot were all too happy to tout their sanctuary city statuses until Texas bused a few thousand migrants into their cities.”

“These migrants willingly chose to go to sanctuary cities Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago, having signed a voluntary consent waiver available in multiple languages upon boarding that they agreed on the destination,” she continued. “Instead of pathetic political attacks and complaints about dealing with a fraction of the border crisis Texas communities see every day, these hypocritical Democrats should call on their party leader, President Biden, to do his job and take immediate action to secure the border — something the President continues failing to do.”

Ducey’s office similarly dismissed the comparison, calling it “preposterous.”

“I would encourage all of the lawmakers who signed that letter [led by Pressley] to come to Arizona spend and some time in Yuma; spend with the mayor, county supervisors and others who can tell them the kind of situation they’re facing and have been for a long time as a result of the federal government’s inability to deal with the border,” said CJ Karamargin, communications director for Ducey. “We’ve sent 56 busses from Yuma to Washington D.C. and only Washington D.C. On board those buses were 2,003 migrants, all of whom volunteered to get on the bus, none were lured on the bus under false [pretenses.]” 

Despite the criticism, the relocation tactics could prove politically beneficial for the governors.

Rose, the Boston University professor, argued that their actions have been a continuation of the rhetoric espoused by former President Trump and embraced by many of his supporters, she said. 

“Donald Trump specifically endorsed these kinds of projects,” Rose said. “He said, basically, let’s send people to sanctuary cities, we’ll give them an unlimited supply. This is something that’s really been endorsed by Trump … just like when [he] referred to immigrants as bad hombres and rapists and criminals. It’s this idea of dehumanizing and scapegoating a racialized, highly vulnerable population in the United States.”

The moves from Abbott and DeSantis come amid swirling rumors about potential 2024 bids. DeSantis in particular has been the subject of recent White House speculation, with many polls showing him as Republican voters’ favorite for the nomination after Trump.

DeSantis’s office did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. 

Of course, the Reverse Freedom Rides were not the only time in history that nonwhite Americans have been forced into leaving their homes. 

Thirty years before Singlemann began his rides, Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans were targeted by local and state governments.

“Mexican repatriation in the 1930s was a state-level campaign to put pressure on Mexican migrant workers and Mexican Americans to leave the United States during the Depression era,” said Eatmon of Harvard University. “I think that it’s important to bring that into this conversation in part because there is a history of repatriation, of human trafficking of brown people in this country outside of that Black-white binary.”

Mexican repatriation took place from 1929 to 1936. The U.S. had seen an increase in Mexican migrants during the 1910s and 1920s, many of them entering the country at a time when the U.S. was in desperate need of agricultural workers. 

But during the Depression, that need dropped sharply, resulting in local and state governments rounding up Mexicans — including those born in the U.S. — for deportation. 

“State and local governments would put pressure on communities by rounding folks up,” said Eatmon. “Some of the American citizens that either left willingly or were rounded up in these efforts … didn’t feel a sense of safety. And I think that speaks to the psychological harm that human trafficking and these types of political stunts has on the actual victim.”

For many, the Mexican American repatriation and Reverse Freedom Rides are unknown, but Eatmon said it’s important to learn about these dark moments in American history. 

“If our students understand some of these episodes in American history, they will understand that what we’re seeing in our current historical moment isn’t new,” she said.

Tags Ayanna Pressley civil rights Greg Abbott Greg Abbott Migrant bussing migrant flights Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis

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