There are echoes of a grim past in the Martha’s Vineyard migrant flight. Freedom Rides in reverse: Code Switch

On May 23, 1962, Lela Mae Williams, 36, arrived in Hyannis, Massachusetts with seven of her nine children. hide caption – Frank C. Curtin/Associated Press

switch to caption Image 2 by Frank C. Curtin/Associated Press On May 23, 1962, Lela Mae Williams, 36, arrived in Hyannis, Massachusetts with seven of her nine children.

Associated Press/Frank C. Curtin Lela Mae Williams was only an hour away from Hyannis, Massachusetts in the summer of 1962 after spending three days traveling there on a Greyhound bus. She walked to the front of the bus and motioned for the driver to stop. She needed to put on her best attire. The Kennedy family was supposed to be waiting for her, according to the commitment.

On a Wednesday afternoon at a late hour, a Greyhound bus from Little Rock, Arkansas, arrived in Hyannis. It came to a stop close to President John F. Kennedy’s family’s vacation house. Lela Mae and her nine youngest children entered the street as soon as the doors opened.

Her family was the subject of reporter’s cameras and microphones. Lela Mae appears flawless in the photos from the newspaper the next day. She was set to begin a new life in a chic black dress, a triple string of pearls, and a white bonnet.

One of Lela Mae’s daughters, Betty Williams, recalled this in a recent interview: “She was going to have a job, and she was going to be able to support her family.” Lela Mae had been promised a fantastic job, nice lodgings, and a warm welcome before traveling up to Massachusetts.

However, President Kennedy was not waiting for her. Additionally, she didn’t have a steady employment or somewhere to live in Hyannis. Lela Mae and the others, on the other hand, were unintentional pawns in a segregationist game.

A few years before she passed away, Margaret Moseley, a longstanding civil rights activist in Hyannis, said in a TV interview, “It was one of the most cruel things I have ever witnessed.”

Southern segregationists were furious over the civil rights movement and had devised a plan to revenge against Northern liberals. About 200 persons from the South were deceived into coming to the north in 1962. The concept was straightforward: Northerners wouldn’t be able to accommodate Black people in significant numbers when they showed up on their doorsteps. Their hypocrisy would be exposed, and they would not want them.

The nation’s collective memory of the Reverse Freedom Rides is largely gone. Even at Hyannis, the main target of the ruse, little is known about the plot, which hardly ever makes an appearance in history books. However, the journey has had a lasting impact on the lives of the families who arrived in the North 60 years ago on the basis of a falsehood.

The Republican governors’ effort this summer to bring migrants north to places like Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago to make a political point has disturbing parallels to the Reverse Freedom Rides. This week, 50 migrants were flown to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, at the expense of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona had already attempted to send thousands of migrants north by busload. Similar to the families from 60 years ago, many of them claimed to have left on fabricated promises of assistance in locating employment and homes.

THE GAME OF THE SEGREGATIONISTS Black and white activists who became known as the Freedom Riders rode Greyhound buses across the South in the summer of 1961 in an effort to integrate interstate buses and bus stations. Mobs brandishing bats and firebombs met the buses as they entered Southern cities.

The Freedom Riders were viewed as sanctimonious provocateurs by Southern segregationists, who were still enraged by the school desegregation battles that dominated the 1950s. The North was “sending down busloads of people here with the express purpose of violating our laws, fomenting confusion, trying to destroy 100 years of workable tradition and good relations between the races,” Ned Touchstone of Louisiana, a spokesperson for a local segregationist group, claimed in a television interview from the time.

The Freedom Riders and their fellow Northern liberals were dismissed by Touchstone and other segregationists as having little interest in integrating interstate transportation or achieving civil rights. They believed it was a plan to shame the South and win over Black voters to the Democratic party.

The “Reverse Freedom Rides” were the segregationists’ response to the Freedom Rides. They’d employ the same tool. Black southerners are transported to northern cities on Greyhound buses.

Amis Guthridge, an Arkansas lawyer who assisted in organizing the Reverse Freedom Rides, said that “for many years, certain politicians, educators, and certain religious leaders have used the white people of the South as a whipping boy, to put it mildly, to further their own ends and their political campaigns.” We’re going to find out if individuals like Ted Kennedy, as well as the Kennedy family as a whole, truly care about and love black people.

The segregationists utilized a network of neighborhood organizations known as Citizens’ Councils. Despite the bland name, historian Clive Webb claimed that the councils were really “the Ku Klux Klan minus the hoods and the masks.”

Racist studies are Webb’s area of expertise at the University of Sussex in England. He released the initial major academic article on the Reverse Freedom Riders. ten years ago.

According to Webb, the Citizens’ Councils made an effort to present their racism as being respectable. They dressed in suits and ties and conducted meetings in opulent downtown hotels. Webb speculated that they might be police officers. They might be bankers, businesspeople, or others.

These men planned an advertising campaign using fliers and radio ads to persuade people to accept bus tickets that were purchased with funds the councils had raised. Their ideal candidates were guys who had become embroiled in the criminal justice system and single women with numerous children.

Webb stated that “they either targeted welfare applicants or inmates.” “People who were, in their opinion, exerting a load on public resources.”

They then tried to get media coverage. The Louisianan who claimed to have come up with the original concept, George Singelmann, had previously worked in a newsroom. He made certain to inform the media.

The headline in The New York Times stated, “Negro ‘Ride’ Plan Stirs New Furor.” In addition, “14 More Jobless Negroes Sent North,” the Boston Herald reported. The plan was covered in papers almost every day as spring transitioned into summer and eventually fall.

Guthridge, who was enjoying the attention, said in an interview, “We will do it until the white folks up there… tell those politicians we are weary of using the American Negro as a pawn merely for their votes.”

However, the segregationists were not always up up about their goals while speaking with reporters. They provided inconsistent arguments for the plan.

Ned Touchstone claimed that “to bring about a more equitable division of the colored population” was his main driving force. He continued by saying that Black people were pleading for help. Is it illegal to offer assistance to those who approach you and say, “Boss man, I want to travel to the North,” he questioned.

The Reverse Freedom Rides’ justification was given by Singelmann as American tradition.

“Our ancestors loaded up covered wagons with everything they owned and set off over the plains. It was rough Americanism back then. For some reason, it’s now considered wrong nowadays. I don’t comprehend it “said he.

The strategy of the Citizens Councils didn’t quite go as they had planned; instead of sending thousands of people north, only a few hundred did so. These people boarded buses headed for destinations such as New York, New Hampshire, Indiana, Idaho, Minnesota, and California. The 96 unknowing Reverse Freedom Riders that arrived at a temporary bus stop closest to the Kennedys’ “summer White House” on Cape Cod included Lela Mae Williams and her kids. Their rural Arkansas house was a great distance away.

THE ARKANSAS WILLIAMS FAMILY The Williams family has resided for many generations close to the Arkansas and Louisiana borders. Huttig, Arkansas, a little town, was the birthplace of Betty and Mickey. They had a large family and a small farm.

When the family moved north, Betty Williams, then 18 years old, remembers the excitement of fishing in the backyard pond and running down the path to cousins’ homes. Her recollections, however, are also tainted by the pain of being spanked by the school’s headmaster and having family members pass away without medical attention.

Mickey Williams, one of Betty’s brothers, recalled the flooding and snakes under the beds: “I remember the flooding in the house.” When the family departed Huttig, he was five years old, and his recollections of the South are now limited and distant. He does, however, recall that the family had financial hardship. We had no money, he said. We were severely in need.

Yet, according to Mickey and Betty, their late mother Lela Mae was able to prepare all of their meals from scratch and required that each child attend school.

The Williams family was restricted to the Black side of town at the period that Arkansas practiced segregation. Betty didn’t have any white friends when she was growing up.

“I never gave a reason for why we were divided in this way, why we couldn’t attend school together, or why we couldn’t eat together. I never once doubted that “She spoke.

However, Betty’s mother desired greater things because she was aware of the political forces at play outside their small, three-room home. She was therefore lured in when she learned about buses going up north and the promises of work and houses. She was even more excited when she learned that the Kennedys would meet the visitors; pictures of John and Robert F. Kennedy were displayed on a wall next to a picture of Martin Luther King Jr.

“My mom assumed that moving to the North would give her children a better life, greater employment opportunities, and better housing,” said Betty. “My mom tried everything a mom could do, everything she could control, everything she could reach.” In order to transport her family up north, Lela Mae accepted the tickets.

Lela Mae and her nine youngest children, who ranged in age from two to 14, were picked up by two cars the Sunday following the end of the school year and driven 150 miles to the bus station in Little Rock. (Betty would continue that summer on a separate bus.) They were driven by Amis Guthridge personally, who also bought root beer and ice cream for the kids.

When the local media arrived, the segregationist attorney had informed them that he would be conducting a press conference. He was surrounded by a small group of reporters at the bus terminal. A teenage reporter from The Arkansas Gazette named Ernie Dumas was present.

Dumas, who is now 81, recalls that the man “made a little grinning speech.” Guthridge continued, pointing at the family, “These lovely, lovely people. This lovely woman and her lovely little children, “Dumas recalled. He believes he observed Guthridge wink at his segregationist colleagues who were seated to the side.

He then recalls Guthridge’s words, “We’re going to send them up to Massachusetts, and the Kennedys and those lovely people up there will take care of them and give them a better life,” which he quotes.

Lela Mae was hesitant and even ashamed that May day in 1962, but Dumas was unable to speak with her.

She appeared attentive in the silent TV video shot at the bus terminal. Some of the children were excited as they smiled for the camera and engaged in play with a cherished bunny doll. Others were restrained, softly conversing while seated in pairs on the waiting room’s wooden seats. Since the majority of the Reverse Freedom Riders were told that everything would be given, the family only had a little amount of luggage.

Lela Mae hustled her kids onto the bus after the press conference, directing them to sit in the rear and then moving forward toward a promise that turned out to be a falsehood.

WE DESCRIBED THEM AS REFUGEES. The very first Reverse Freedom Rider to go to Hyannis arrived on May 12, 1962, weeks before the Williams family boarded the Greyhound bus.

A group of more than 100 people greeted 43-year-old army veteran David Harris with enthusiasm. He was dressed in a coat and tie. There were many remarks, many handshakes, and many media present. Ted Kennedy, a prospective senator, was there to greet him. When Harris informed bystanders that it “felt mighty good when I crossed that Mason-Dixon line,” they applauded.

The Greyhound buses continued to arrive over the following weeks and months, but the onlookers vanished. Ted Kennedy never again appeared. Nobody from the Kennedy family’s other members ever showed up. There were very few Hyannis residents left, including civil rights pioneer Margaret Moseley.

Religious leaders, the neighborhood NAACP organization, and a few worried citizens banded together to assist after hearing media reports that more Reverse Freedom Riders were approaching. Both white and black residents were in the group. They divided the work up into groups, and they called themselves The Refugee Relief Committee.

“They were known as refugees. They embodied our perception of what a refugee is. They were frightened, exhausted, and homeless. In order to assist them, “The committee’s chairman, Rev. Kenneth Warren, a Unitarian clergyman, stated to a reporter at the time.

Moseley carried the bus timetable around with her that summer of 1962. She had a lot of responsibilities, but one of them was to welcome the newcomers. Three years prior to her passing, the late Moseley stated in an interview with Tales of Cape Cod in 1994 that “the majority of the persons that came had only a shopping bag with probably one change of clothing.” Arriving with “no money, knowing nobody,” the Reverse Freedom Riders

One of the kids who showed up asked, “Where are the cotton fields?” in Moseley’s memory. There were no cotton fields, she informed him. This news, according to her, was a severe blow. She remembered the youngster saying, “So, how will I go about getting a job? I’m able to chop cotton. I have no idea how to proceed further.”

The group acted quickly to assist, persuading the neighborhood community college to accept the newcomers into its dorms. The bedding came from the neighborhood jail. Additionally, when the summer semester began and students returned to their residences, they convinced the governor to push for the opening of the barracks at the adjacent Otis Air Force Base.

The restrictions were very severe at Otis. Lights out was at 8:30 p.m. and curfew was at 8 p.m. Boys older than five were supposed to live apart from their mothers in barracks. Heat and being close to restrooms were extras that weren’t expected. The commander of the base, Major Gen. Thomas Donnelly, declared in a letter that they would not be treated with familiarity, but rather with firmness, decency, and fairness. “Our fundamental perspective is that these are people with problems, and we are working to find answers for them.”

However, their attempts failed to quell the segregationists’ claims that Hyannis was engaging in forced segregation. Singelmann told reporters that Otis Air Force Base was comparable to a “concentration camp” in an effort to demonstrate that white people in the North were just as racist as white people in the South.

Betty claimed she never viewed her life in Massachusetts as a concentration camp but acknowledged that it wasn’t always pleasant. “I never used to smile that much. Never did I grin. I have no idea why that happened “In the fall of 1962, Betty moved in with her mother and her nine siblings, she recalled. At the time, she was 18 years old, eight months pregnant, and also carrying her two-year-old son. In the fall, her older sister Gloria and her two kids also arrived.

The Williams family was transferred 100 miles north to Newburyport, Massachusetts, as the committee attempted to spread the Reverse Freedom Riders so it would be simpler for them to find employment. Betty was able to get work cleaning homes. She noted that despite the townspeople’s politeness, there was a persistent sense of separation and distinction.

She understood Northerners “do not act or think in the same ways. From where we were raised, the culture is very different.”

A MILLION MILE RUN from home The nation around them deliberated whether to step in as the Reverse Freedom Riders got used to their new lifestyles.

The governor of Illinois likened the Reverse Freedom Rides to Nazis exterminating Jews. A Mississippi politician said, “They want to ‘free’ the Negro in the South, but want to disavow responsibility for him once he has been ‘freed,'” adding that he enjoyed seeing the North wriggle. Massachusetts Governor John Volpe offered his assistance but expressed concern that his welfare budget would be exhausted. He requested action from the federal authorities.

The subject was mainly avoided by President Kennedy. The White House routinely responded to concerned and outraged people’ letters by saying that while the situation was “deplorable,” “there is no violation of law.” At a press conference, Kennedy was questioned about it, and he paused before responding, “Well, I think that’s, um, a fairly cheap exercise in. For more than a minute, he staggered, hesitated, and attempted to avoid answering the question.

On the other hand, there were those who sent joke presents like a live opossum and a goat to Hyannis for the Reverse Freedom Riders to eat and wrote hate letters to the Refugee Relief Committee about how the Bible supports segregation.

However, the general consensus was that, rather than exposing the duplicity of Northern liberals, the Reverse Freedom Rides revealed the callousness of the Southern segregationists. Private individuals from all throughout the nation wrote to express their support. Others wrote checks, while some suggested sheltering the Reverse Freedom Riders in their own cities and houses. Little Rock, the starting point of many Reverse Freedom Rides, sent the first donation.

The plan abruptly came to an end by late September. The money that the Citizens’ Councils had raised was running out, and it was difficult to find riders. The final Reverse Freedom Rider to arrive in Hyannis was Betty Williams, who got off her Greyhound bus on October 17.

The Williams family and the other Reverse Freedom Riders were still 1,000 miles from anything resembling home long after it was finished.

THE MASSACHUSETTS WILLIAMS FAMILY The Williams family eventually relocated to Boston in search of employment, just like a lot of individuals who were assigned to Hyannis. The Bromley-Heath Apartments, one of the most notorious housing buildings in the city, was where they resided. It was said that milkmen and furniture deliverymen avoided the property.

The initiatives, according to Mickey, “were nothing to be proud of.” His recollections of the location are laced with incidents involving cockroaches and cracked concrete.

Lela Mae made an effort to provide her kids with the most stability she could in an unpredictable situation, just as she had done in the South. Among the crumbling brick apartment buildings, she took old tires, filled them with earth, and made flowerbeds out of them.

But everything else was crumbling aside from the flowers. Their close-knit family started to deteriorate since they had no support system and relatives who lived halfway across the nation, according to Betty. Drugs, jail, and antagonistic neighbors—things the Williams family had never encountered in their small Southern town—began to define their life. When we lived in the South, things weren’t like that, Betty replied. “When we arrived here, all of this happened.”

However, racism had followed the family to the North from the South.

Mickey recalled Boston’s efforts to desegregate through busing during his high school years: “We were being attacked in school by white kids. “They were all outside encircling the school, I suddenly realized. White adults and children. Males of all ages. They had canines. Chains were on them. The group was attempting to enter the school.”

Lela Mae had different plans for her kids than this. She “tried with every ounce of strength that she had to try to pull this family together” from one of Boston’s roughest street corners during one of the city’s worst chapters, said Betty. Betty and Mickey claimed they have resolved not to direct their anger toward the segregationists who deceived their family after years of processing what happened to their family. “Hatred has no place in my heart, at all. Nowhere. There isn’t room for that here “said Betty.

Mickey has spent years leafing through history books in search of lost tales as he has been working on a series of children’s books about little-known Black Americans who have accomplished extraordinary things. But he claimed that he didn’t begin to consider the possibility that the trip of his own family would be documented in history until lately.

IT WAS A Dreadful Thing. The subject of the Reverse Freedom Rides is not one about how the United States has always been at war with the same enemies, claims historian Clive Webb. Instead, he claimed, it serves as a warning about how bystanders may thwart a racist scheme. The white conservatives who were in charge of that effort at the time, according to Webb, “really misjudged the decency of many regular people.”

But the subsequent generation of Americans has mostly forgotten the tale. Even the Williams family made an effort to move on. Mickey and Betty both claimed that their mother never brought up the prank that had been done on her.

“She never talked about anything. Nothing. absolutely nothing, “Mickey said. “She wanted to spare us the trouble. All it was was pride.”

The Williams family mythology somehow developed to say that they were Freedom Riders, not Reverse Freedom Riders. It may have been a result of their sense of pride or the haziness of the segregationists’ lies. One of Betty’s sons, professional skateboarder Jahmal Williams, recalled that as a child, his mother would always declare, “We played a part in this,” whenever tales about the Civil Rights Movement would go past on TV.

Jahmal didn’t realize there was much to learn until his grandmother Lela Mae passed away in 2013. He discovered a flyer promoting the Reverse Freedom Rides during her funeral. He went home and began his search on Google.

Jahmal remembered, “And I was like, ‘Whoa. He’s still processing his thoughts. He admitted that the political game that these men were playing was terrible, but added, “On the other hand, I wouldn’t be here if that game wasn’t played.

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