As conservative governors try to score political points by depositing busloads and planeloads of migrants in liberal cities, it can seem like an unprecedented exercise in cruelty. But it’s a page ripped from an earlier playbook in U.S. politics, one that was forgotten for decades for a very good reason. Rachel Maddow and Isaac-Davy Aronson revisit the racist Reverse Freedom Rides of the 1960s.
Announcer: NBC News presents another special report. Tonight, Alabama, USA. The story —
Rachel Maddow: This NBC News special report is from Montgomery, Alabama. An NBC News reporter is describing something that just happened to him and his crew as they arrived in Montgomery to cover a news story.
Herbert Kaplow: We arrived in Montgomery at about 10:15. Maurice Levy, soundman Wee Risser and I jumped out of our car to photograph the debarking from the bus itself.
Maddow: This is NBC News correspondent, Herbert Kaplow. He and his crew had been following a bus which pulled into Montgomery, Alabama, on Saturday morning. And it quickly became clear that there were people in Montgomery who did not want that bus stopping in their city. And they really didn’t want reporters there documenting what they were about to do to the people on that bus.
Kaplow: Then a heavyset man asked me whether I was one of the group. I said I was not. I noticed then that he was holding in his right hand an open pen knife with a blade extended. A few moments later, someone else pointed out to this very same man that Levy was making pictures. The man — now the knife, I believe, had been put away because I no longer saw it — he went right to Levy and started to strike at him, which started this violence.
Levy backed off, still trying to make some pictures. Others joined in the attack on the cameraman and on Risser who was carrying sound equipment. Levy at one point fell to the ground and the fat man kicked him. And then Levy got up, the camera was knocked from his hands as was the small amplifier from Risser’s.
I hid some equipment under my coat. We were then forced down the street. I would guess there were probably 10-15 men who were actively violent at that point. I did not —
Maddow: Reporter Herbert Kaplow has been attacked by what he describes as 10-15 actively violent men. And here in this report for national NBC TV news, he’s just calmly recounting that incident step by step.
He pulls out the equipment that he and his crew were carrying when they were attacked to show viewers how badly everything was damaged.
Kaplow: Now this is the amplifier that Risser was carrying. The strap here is broken. The amplifier had been hanging by this strap from Risser’s neck. The inside, the parts shaken loose and wrecked.
And this is the camera magazine. It’s rather sturdy metal as you can hear, but you can see what was done as it was cracked here and here and in other places. Unfortunately, the film which Levy had been taking as he was being attacked was in this side of the magazine. If it had been here, we might have been able to retain some.
And this is the camera itself. The inside pretty well bounced around and the lenses very much shattered and dented. Considerable damage. We probably can do better by selling this camera now by the pound. Now, after we were forced away, that’s when the attack on the riders themselves started.
Maddow: After we were forced away, that’s when the attack on the riders themselves started. In other words, the mob first took care of the reporters and the cameras, even the sound equipment, so nobody could record what they were about to do. And then they had at it.
Kaplow: One of the riders was banged up pretty badly. Two other students were hurt. And in trying to rescue a member of the group, an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, John Seigenthaler, was knocked out.
Maddow: This mob in Montgomery, Alabama, beat up a bunch of news reporters. They beat up students and activists. They knocked unconscious a top official from the U.S. Attorney General’s office. That official from the Attorney General’s office was there that day in Alabama because the U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, had decided that the federal government would finally step in to provide protection from this kind of violence.
It was May 1961. The federal government would step in to protect the Freedom Riders.
Frank McGee: On the fifth of this month, a group of Negroes and whites that called itself Freedom Riders left Washington by bus for a trip across the South. This current Negro effort, which has been joined by some whites, is directed against segregated waiting rooms maintained at most bus stations in the South.
Federal law says they may not segregate passengers who are going from one state to another, but many still do. Late today, the federal government made its first arrest since the current wave of racial violence began sweeping the state of Alabama about eight days ago.
Four white men accused of throwing a fire bomb into a stalled bus outside Anniston, Alabama, were arrested by the FBI.
Reporter: Kennedy decided to send in the U.S. Marshals, some of whom were on duty yesterday morning at the bus station in Montgomery. Kennedy obviously was convinced Alabama Governor Patterson either could not or would not maintain order. Altogether, about 500 Marshals were ordered to go to Montgomery. This contingent of —
Maddow: The same day that the NBC News crew and the assistant to the Attorney General were attacked alongside the Freedom Riders themselves, that same night, the Freedom Riders gathered with other civil rights activists at a church in Montgomery. Those federal marshals that had been deployed to Alabama by the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, the marshals had to surround the church to protect it from being stormed, to protect it from being attacked by a mob of angry white people.
Inside, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to reassure the crowd.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: According to the Attorney General, no mob will be allowed to assemble here in front of this church. But we are not giving in for what we are standing for. And maybe it takes something like this for the federal government to see that Alabama is not going to place any limit upon itself. It must be imposed from without. And the —
Maddow: The situation was especially bad in Alabama, but the 1961 Freedom Riders had been met with mob violence of varying degrees just about everywhere. And keep in mind, all they were doing was taking buses from station to station and then calmly sitting down in waiting rooms at bus stations. That’s it.
But this so enraged Southern segregationists that their violence could barely be contained. In many cases, it was not contained. Alabama’s governor was asked why the violence was so out of control in his state. He was asked why in city after city, his state couldn’t protect people who were just riding buses and sitting in waiting rooms. His response was that the people who were being attacked, well, they had it coming.
John Patterson: These so-called Freedom Riders were people who came from other states into Alabama, not on any legitimate business, not as visitors, not as people who were obeying the law, but as people who came here deliberately seeking a fight.
But prior to the time that these people came to Alabama, Alabama was a peaceable state. Everybody was getting along well together here. We were working and cooperating together in a spirit of harmony and peace. But these people came into Alabama and from the very first day, did everything they could to provoke the citizens of this state —
Maddow: Everything was fine before they got here. Everything was peaceable. We were getting along well together in a spirit of harmony. But then these outsiders came in and did so much provoking with their peaceable bus riding and their waiting room sitting. It made the segregationists in the South so mad. It made them so mad they decided they were going to get even.
They were going to get even with the people they felt were behind the Freedom Rides: President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, the attorney general, and also all those northern liberals who insisted on upsetting that spirit of harmony and peace that supposedly prevailed in the South. Those elites up north just didn’t understand why things had to stay the way they were in the South, why these Freedom Rides were such a problem.
The segregationists decided they would make them understand. And so, they cooked up a scheme to really stick it to the Kennedys and all their friends. They would put together their own bus rides. But these buses would take African Americans from the South to the North. White Southerners would recruit Black riders for these buses through bribery, deceit, and threats. And then they would drive these people north right to the Kennedys’ doorstep. They’d leave them there with no money, no resources, no plan. Let the liberals deal with that. That’ll show them. They called it the Reverse Freedom Rides.
I’m Rachel Maddow, and I’m here once again with Isaac-Davy Aronson. Hi, Isaac.
Isaac-Davy Aronson: Hi, Rachel.
Maddow: So, these days, now, what we’ve got is southern conservative governors putting undocumented immigrants on northbound buses or even on planes, dropping them off in the middle of big cities or other places perceived to be liberal. And today’s right-wing southern governors have been trumpeting this as some kind of brand new, brilliant political innovation. But it turns out, of course, yes, they’ve done this one before too.
Aronson: It’s a story of southern conservatives who came up with what they thought was an ingenious scheme to essentially own the libs. They thought they’d unmask the hypocrisy of civil rights advocates, but their stunt ended up revealing much more about them than it did about their targets.
Maddow: And as always, here on Déjà News, there’s the question of whether history can help. If we, as a country, have done this before, what does it mean that we’re doing it again? And can we learn anything from how and why it started last time and how and why it stopped?
And so, let’s do it. This is “Rachel Maddow Presents: Déjà News.”
Archival Recording: Relaxing while we’re riding in a Greyhound bus, we’re seeing all the scenery in comfort plus. It’s such a comfort to take the bus, and leave the driving to us. In a Greyhound bus, lucky us, in a Greyhound bus.
Maddow: Lucky us. With the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, travel across the U.S. became faster and easier than ever. For Americans who didn’t have their own wheels or who didn’t want to drive long distances themselves, nothing embodied the romantic ideal of the freedom to travel on the open American road like the Greyhound bus, which is what made Greyhound buses such an interesting, potent, symbolic focal point for America’s fight over racial discrimination and civil rights.
In 1961, when the Freedom Riders boarded Greyhound buses, federal law already banned segregation on interstate transportation. But that law only existed on paper. It had not been enforced. When a bus crossed the border into a Jim Crow state, African American passengers were still often told to move to the back of the bus.
At bus terminals, the waiting areas were segregated with signs designating which room you were allowed to sit in, depending on the color of your skin. That’s where Isaac picks up the story. And I’ll be back with you on the other side.
Archival Recording: In a Greyhound bus, lucky us, in a Greyhound bus.
Aronson: Southern segregationists were absolutely apoplectic about the Freedom Rides, and not just because they worked, because they got the federal government to enforce the law against segregated buses. It was deeper than that.
Kellie Carter Jackson: I think what upset white Southerners so much is not the fact that Black people were coming to the South, because Black people have always been in the South. I think the fact is that these were integrated acts of civil disobedience, meaning white and Black people were sitting on buses together, congregating in spaces together.
Aronson: Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson is an associate professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.
Carter Jackson: And now this fear is an old fear, the idea that if Black people and white people get together and have too much fun, that something is going to happen that is taboo, that is unacceptable in white society.
Aronson: Dr. Jackson says Southern segregationists could not conceive of a world in which there would be any reason for white and Black people to sit together anywhere as equals.
Carter Jackson: There’s no reason for a Black person and a white person to share a space unless that Black person is in service to that white person. And so, the idea of Black and white people coming down leisurely, somewhat, right, was huge for white Southerners. It meant that there was a real threat to their way of life and mostly to their white supremacist ideas.
Aronson: The people who came up with the idea that the Freedom Rides should be met with more than just violence, that there ought to be some kind of cruel payback for them, targeting Northern liberals and the Kennedys, the groups who came up with that idea were called the White Citizens’ Councils.
Carter Jackson: White Citizens’ Councils, well, they dropped the word white, but initially they were known as White Citizens’ Councils, but they later just become Citizens’ Councils. And what they are is just a classy version of the Klan. People still had those beliefs. They still had these racist ideas, but they needed a way to sort of cloak it in respectability and cloak it in a way where robes might not be necessary, right?
It was all about promoting morality and patriotism and like this deep belief in the American family. And all of these ideas that we kind of see play out today as well.
Aronson: The idea these White Citizens’ Councils came up with was the reverse Freedom Rides.
Gabrielle Emanuel: They had this basically simple plan.
Aronson: This is Gabrielle Emanuel of Boston Public Radio station, WBUR. She’s done groundbreaking recent reporting on the reverse Freedom Rides and their long legacy.
Emanuel: They’d use the same weapon, the Greyhound bus, and they would trick African-Americans into moving north. And ideally, in their mind, these would be people who were destitute, welfare dependent, had criminal records. They would send them north. And the segregationists predicted northern liberals would not want them in their hometowns, in their children’s schools, in their lives.
And basically, the North’s hypocrisy would be exposed. So, the idea was that the Greyhound bus would basically knock northern liberals off of their high horse.
George Singelmann: The ultimate accomplishment is to focus attention on the hypocrisy of the northern liberals. They have been crying the singsong on behalf of the Negroes throughout the nation.
Aronson: That’s George Singelmann, who was part of a White Citizens’ Council in Louisiana. He was one of the architects of the Reverse Freedom Rides.
Emanuel: There were these networks of White Citizens’ Councils and they did a lot of the recruiting to find these African American families and individuals to send north. And they recruited them. They printed flyers. They ran radio ads and they trained their eye on Blacks who had nowhere else to go. And as the segregationists saw it, would place a particularly high burden on the North.
The bait was not just a free ticket north and a small amount of spending money. The segregationists in the South promised them good jobs, nice housing. And for those who were sent to Hyannis — and the largest number went to Hyannis, which is just on the coast of Massachusetts — a presidential welcome, because this is where the Kennedys summered.
Archival Recording: A triumphal homecoming for Senator John F. Kennedy, who is reunited with his wife, Jacqueline, at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. One hundred thousand crowded into the quiet Cape Cod town cheer the Democrats’ presidential standard bearer on his return to the —
Carter Jackson: Black families are brought to the front steps of JFK’s summer home to really teach him a lesson. And they tell these families, JFK is going to greet you. He’s going to be there with open arms.
Aronson: Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson again.
Carter Jackson: There are people who are being duped, who are saying, oh, you’re going to have jobs. You’re going to have a house. JFK, the president, is going to greet you at his summer home. And then there are other people who are being forced, like if you do not get on this bus, we will take your welfare check. So, there’s a two-pronged attack to get Black people on these buses.
Aronson: For all the lying and coercion that it took to get people onto these northbound buses, the southern segregationists behind the Reverse Freedom Rides like to pretend they were just doing a favor to African Americans who had already been wanting to head north. That’s what they told reporters who asked about it.
Ned Touchstone: Is it a crime to help people who come to you and say, boss man, I want to go to the North? Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Nixon, the others have told us of the wonderful conditions there. Can you help us go?
Singelmann: These are free American citizens transgressing to a new frontier. Just think, a hundred years ago, our forefathers covered, put everything in their possession into covered wagons and went out across the plains. In those days, it was rugged Americanism. Now, today, for some reason or other, it’s being frowned upon. I don’t understand it.
Aronson: In her reporting on the Reverse Freedom Rides, Gabrielle Emanuel explored the history of one family in particular, a family headed by Lela Mae Williams, a single mother in Arkansas who had recently lost her welfare benefits.
Ms. Williams was raising 11 children on her own. Above the fireplace in her three-room home, she hung three portraits: Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy.
Emanuel: Segregationist Amis Guthridge, the mastermind behind this plot, the Reverse Freedom Rides, sent two cars to pick up Lela Mae and her nine youngest kids. They were just aged 2-14. So, you know, young kids.
They crammed into these station wagons and drove all the way to Little Rock’s bus terminal where there was a press event. They were all dressed in their finest clothes. They were giddy. They were smiling, happy. There’s footage from that time, TV footage.
And actually, on the way to get to the bus terminal, Guthridge took the kids out for ice cream and root beer. And many of the families that went north didn’t take luggage. They had been told that everything would be provided for them. The Williams family, they spent three days on the bus. Lela Mae asked the bus driver about half an hour before getting to Hyannis to pull over so she could put her finest clothes on.
And she looked incredible in these pictures. She’s so glamorous. She had this black, silky dress, triple string of pearls, high heels, a hat. She just looked fantastic. And of course, she thought she was meeting the Kennedys.
Aronson: The Kennedys were not there to meet them in Hyannis on Cape Cod. The idea was that no one would be prepared to meet them. The Citizens’ Councils purposely told no one when or where or on which bus the people would be arriving.
Segregationists assumed that the town of Hyannis would react with horror to the people getting off the buses, that a poor Black single mother with her nine children along would be shunned and scorned. And the people of Hyannis did react with horror and even disgust, but not directed at Lela Mae Williams and her family.
Margaret Moseley: To send people out into the world to a destination they have no understanding of, don’t even know where it is, where on the map it would be, with no money, nobody to receive them, just to come to a strange place, get off a bus, stand on the street, not know where to turn, not to have even money enough to eat, I think, is about as despicable as one can think of treatment of one human to another.
Aronson: This is Margaret Moseley, who was living on Cape Cod in the early ‘60s. Moseley was a leader of the ad hoc Refugee Relief Committee that formed to help the Reverse Freedom Riders as they began arriving. The Committee included white and Black Cape Cod residents and was led by a local pastor.
Margaret Moseley decided that she would meet every single bus that arrived in Hyannis because they never knew when more Reverse Freedom Riders would be arriving. Moseley carried the bus schedule in her pocket. This is from an interview she gave in 1994, a few years before she died.
Moseley: I had to greet the people, find out whether they had money to eat that night, whether they knew anyone on the Cape. Most of the people who came had only a shopping bag, nothing beyond a shopping bag with perhaps one change of clothing, no money, knowing nobody.
The first question that most of the arrivals asked was, where is President Kennedy? We were told that he was going to meet us at the bus. It was one of the most inhuman things that I have ever seen.
Aronson: This whole episode may be largely forgotten now, six decades later, but at the time, this was a huge story. Reporter Gabrielle Emanuel went through boxes and boxes of letters that poured into Hyannis from all over the country. The pastor who led the Refugee Relief Committee there had kept them all in his basement.
Emanuel: This was front page news. The whole nation was following what was happening. And there were letters, tons and tons of letters. They were in the basement of the Reverend Warren, boxes and boxes of letters. He saved them all from all over the country, donations, checks, letters of support. Oh, I have an extra room. We could house a family if they come down to New York.
And at the same time, there was tons of hate mail, also boxes and boxes of hate mail.
Aronson: The segregationists planned to keep the Reverse Freedom Rides going. They said they would send an initial wave of a thousand Black Southerners. And that would be just the start.
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. And if it takes 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years, 5 or 10 years, we will continue it till the white people up there —
Aronson: It did not last 10 years or 5 years or 2 years. In the end, it lasted barely a few months. The final tally of Reverse Freedom Riders was two or three hundred, with the largest number of them, 96 people, bused to Hyannis.
The operation sputtered out for a couple of reasons. For one, community organizations like the Refugee Relief Committee in Hyannis proved to be quite welcoming, which made the whole thing not as fun as the White Citizens’ Councils had hoped. But also, the horror and disgust at the whole project was not limited to the cities and towns where the Reverse Freedom Riders were sent.
There were denunciations in newspapers and on the radio, even in the South. The Little Rock, Arkansas Chamber of Commerce got spooked about a possible economic backlash and came out against the Reverse Freedom Rides. The Automobile Legal Association, which was kind of like AAA, blacklisted Arkansas and Louisiana for taking part in the scheme. The Association said, quote, “vacation should provide relaxation and education, and it is quite evident that tourists can learn very little in states where traffic in human misery is practiced.”
And then the Reverse Freedom Rides hit a final roadblock: money. Having tried and failed to get public funding for the whole Reverse Freedom Ride stunt, organizers were instead using private donations to pay for it. And now those private donations dried up.
Some of the Reverse Freedom Riders ultimately returned to their homes in the South, but among those who never went back were Lela Mae Williams and her kids.
Emanuel: The Williams family are still a thousand miles away from their home. They’re a thousand miles away from all their support networks. They’re a thousand miles away from the world they knew and had lived in for generations. They moved from this wealthy enclave, Hyannis, that they arrived in to one of the harshest corners of Boston, which is the Bromley Heath public housing development.
And there are several surviving members of the Williams family who remember growing up there and they remember Boston’s harshness at that time, the school busing crisis, they lived through that. The crack epidemic, the battling gangs that, really ripped apart parts of Boston and kind of pulled at the seams of Lela Mae’s family. And it was extremely hard for Lela Mae, as her family recounts it, of her just really struggling to hold the family together and being very heartbroken about what was happening to her kids in this place where they didn’t have support. After that warm welcome faded, the reality in the North was really harsh and they did not have the support they needed and they saw plenty of racism.
Aronson: Gabrielle Emanuel has talked to several of Lela Mae Williams’ children and grandchildren. The family’s life in Arkansas before the trip north was harsh in its own ways, with poverty and the white supremacist regime of Jim Crow. Still, the family is, to some degree, haunted by the question of what would have happened had Lela Mae never gotten on that bus.
Their feelings about it have only gotten more complicated in recent years, as they’ve learned the full story of how their family ended up in Massachusetts. Many of the children remember the bus ride north, but they had no idea it was part of some political scheme or that their mother had in some way been misled into taking the trip.
According to her kids, to the end of her life, Lela Mae Williams never once spoke about that bus ride.
Maddow: The Reverse Freedom Rides. A political game, but also a sort of performance of cruelty put on for the amusement of the people who were carrying it out. And it has lasting, generations-long effects on some of the families that got caught up in it. And it’s interesting, this isn’t something that was only recognized as cruel and shameful after the fact, like generations later. People all over the country were horrified when this happened and said so.
Gallup Polling at the time showed that even many white Southerners thought that this was just despicable. You would think that after all the shame and derision that was heaped on the people who launched that project, nobody would ever try something like that again.
But now, today, the buses are once again rolling north, or sometimes it’s planes now, and it’s undocumented immigrants, some of them deceived or coerced into traveling to places they never intended to go to, they never wanted to go to, places that have not been prepared in any way for their arrival. People being dropped off, among other places, outside the home of Vice President Kamala Harris, or on Martha’s Vineyard, which is not far at all from Hyannis on Cape Cod. Because, yeah, that’ll show those northern liberals.
What’s happening now is copied almost word for word from the conservative playbook that was written by the White Citizens’ Councils in 1961 and 1962. It’s a playbook that gives unwanted starring roles to both shame and money. And that part of the story is ahead on Déjà News.
Lester Holt: Tonight, GOP governors escalating the immigration battle by shipping migrants to Democrat-led states. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sending two plane loads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard with no advance notice, according to officials on the ground.
In Washington, D.C., two buses of migrants sent by the Republican governor of Texas to the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Kerry Sanders: Forty-eight Venezuelan migrants, the youngest only three years old, flown to Martha’s Vineyard, Wednesday, will spend another night at a local church. Officials say they were given no notice the migrants were headed there. The charter flights to the wealthy, heavily Democratic enclave where former President Obama has a home, arranged by Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. As the local island community in Massachusetts rallied to help the migrants today…
Martha’s Vineyard Resident: Some of them have been through really horrific things.
Sanders: …anger among some Democrats.
Rep. Dylan Fernandes: We have the governor of one of the largest states in the country hatching a secretive plot to use humans, to use women, children, families as a political pawn. And to me, it is just so cruel.
Maddow: When dozens of Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers were flown across the country and unceremoniously deposited on Martha’s Vineyard last year, it soon emerged that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had paid contractors to recruit those people for the flights.
In another echo from the segregationist Reverse Freedom Rides in the 1960s, those contractors allegedly used a mix of bribes, lies, and coercion to induce people to get on board. The immigrants say the recruiters told them that food and shelter and jobs would be waiting for them.
But unlike the Reverse Freedom Rides, which sputtered out after a few months and a couple of hundred people being duped into it, now the transporting of undocumented immigrants north is still going on. The flights to Martha’s Vineyard in September last year, those were just the start of it. Since then, thousands of people, men, women, children have been bused to New York or Chicago or Washington, D.C. Now they’ve started with Sacramento, the capital of California, to try to get a rise out of California’s pugnacious Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.
The similarities between what Republican governors are doing now and what the White Citizens’ Councils did with the Reverse Freedom Rides in the 1960s, it’s just too blatant to ignore. But can what happened then help us understand not only why it’s happening again, but also why it looks like it may play out differently this time around?
Here’s Isaac with that part of the story.
Aronson: It takes a very particular kind of mind to come up with something like the Reverse Freedom Rides. And if we’re looking for the origins of this current busing scheme for immigrants, you will not be surprised to learn that the mind it appeared to spring from was Donald Trump’s.
Emanuel: Trump was still president and he had threatened to send new arrivals, people who had just crossed the border to sanctuary cities.
Aronson: WBUR reporter, Gabrielle Emanuel.
Emanuel: He said, basically, if you sanctuary cities love these people so much, we’ll send them to you. And we have lots of them. We’ll send you tons. And let’s see if you really have open arms.
Donald Trump: We’ll give them more people. We can give them a lot. We can give them an unlimited supply. And let’s see if they’re so happy. They say we have open arms. They’re always saying they have open arms —
Emanuel: So that happened. It caused an uproar. It was in the press. And my editor called me into his little office in our local newsroom and he said, years ago, he had lived on the coast of Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, and he had heard rumors that something similar had happened years ago — people had been put on buses as part of a political plot.
But he didn’t know much more, and he actually didn’t know if this was true or not. He thought maybe it was an urban legend. I called up some historians. They didn’t know what I was talking about. I then went to the newspaper archives, and there were tons of stories. So, this was true. And not only was it true, this was front page news at the time.
Aronson: Remarkably, Emanuel did all this research and published her history of the Reverse Freedom Rides before anyone had actually acted on Trump’s little thought experiment. It was once Joe Biden became president that Republicans like Ron DeSantis decided they would go for it.
Ron DeSantis: All those people in D.C. and New York were beating their chests when Trump was president, saying they were so proud to be sanctuary jurisdictions. The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with every day is brought to their front door, they all of a sudden go berserk and they’re so upset that this is happening. And it just shows you, you know, their virtue signaling is a fraud.
Aronson: Now, I know we use the word uncanny a lot on this podcast, but this time we’re really earning it. Here’s basically that exact same speech from Ron DeSantis, except it’s from 1962.
Singelmann: The ultimate accomplishment is to focus attention on the hypocrisy of the Northern liberals. They have been crying the singsong on behalf of the Negroes throughout the nation. And of course, now when it comes time for them to put up or shut up, they have shut up.
Aronson: It’s not just the voices of the perpetrators of the Reverse Freedom Rides that are echoing today. It’s also the voices of those who responded, who stepped up to help when the buses arrived.
Juan Carlos Ruiz: We began opening the doors 24 hours at the beginning for about four months because we were a respite sanctuary space, which meant that people used to come to our church and stay over 24 hours, 2 days, 3 days.
Aronson: This is Reverend Juan Carlos Ruiz of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
Ruiz: We ended up with some families that we couldn’t place in the shelter system. So, they stayed with us for over a week. So, we helped at the beginning with sheltering about 400 families.
Aronson: Reverend Ruiz says people are arriving after an already harrowing journey in a place they didn’t expect to be, alone, with nothing and no one to help them.
Ruiz: Many of them, you look at the immigration paperwork and their final destination is Portland, Washington, Texas itself. So, when they come here, they are at least baffled by ending up in a place where they don’t have any relatives. Many times, they don’t know anybody. You have an entire population walking thousands of miles through horrible conditions, dangerous, at the mercy of cartels and criminalized international gangs. It’s just explosive.
But it seems some of the politicians down south are playing with the lives of people in a very cruel way. So, you get a lot of people really being injured and harmed, if not physically, psychologically.
Aronson: For conservatives who are organizing these bus rides, the ones doing it in the 1960s and the ones doing it today, they say the whole project is necessary. They say it’s the only way to expose the Northern Liberals and their disingenuous political motives.
Guthridge: They want to corral the large Negro vote in the key cities of the north and the east to control elections. We believe that is the prime purpose behind all of these tragic, cruel, and foolish civil rights pieces of legislation and propaganda. However, we’re going to find out if all of them really do have an interest in the Negro people, really do have a love for him, for the Negro, and a desire to help him.
Aronson: That was Amis Guthridge, the guy who took the kids out for ice cream and root beer before putting them on that bus north. And this is Republican campaign tape from last year, from losing Senate candidate Blake Masters, a big fan of the Martha’s Vineyard stunt.
Blake Masters: They just want this open border. This is the way Democrats like it. And again, I’m bold enough to admit the obvious, right, which is that they’re doing this so that someday they can amnesty these people and make them voters who they expect to vote Democrat. This is an electoral strategy for the Democrats. Their policies are —
Aronson: Different accent, but basically the exact same script. So, one way to understand these two schemes 60 years apart is cynicism, political cynicism, and the willingness to injure other people, if it helps you make your point.
Another way to understand them has to do with something harder to contend with, some of the uglier depths of human nature. Here’s Wellesley professor Kellie Carter Jackson.
Carter Jackson: I think that oftentimes, we don’t realize the cruelty that comes from racism is not just about, I hate you. It is, I find pleasure and enjoyment in your demise. And that, to me, is even worse than someone who has anger, right, because anger, in some ways, has information, you know? Like you can understand why someone might be angry. You can talk that through.
But the pleasure piece of it, the pleasure aspect feels sadistic. It feels perverse. It feels like there’s actually no purpose for doing this other than to bring about your laughter and to bring about my demise. And it’s a sinister way of thinking about racism. But I also think it’s a very honest way of thinking about racism. It is honest to say that there are people who are laughing, people who are in their offices saying, ha-ha, we got them on the bus, we duped them, take that, North. Like it is hilarious to them.
Aronson: When I spoke to Reverend Ruiz, the words he kept coming back to again and again were dignity and humanity. His church provides all kinds of physical necessities to the people who come to them: food, shelter, clothing, even cell phones. But he says what they need more than anything, what they’ve been denied in their journey north, is just the basic respect due to a fellow human being.
Ruiz: It is cruel to play with people’s lives. We need to denounce behavior or practices that really dehumanize and attempt with the dignity of people. Where does it stop? It may begin with dehumanizing the immigrant, but I think the same dynamic can be utilized to dehumanize any other group of people or race and the violence that inflicts not only on the person that is being played with or toyed with, but also of the humanity of the person that is doing the playing or has the finger on the trigger is in question.
We know that hatred and these dehumanizing forces, they don’t stop in our political chambers. They tend to spill over to our day to day. This is a great danger for a nation.
Aronson: Here’s Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson again.
Carter Jackson: Seeing people as people is the floor, right? It’s the most basic thing that you can do. When I think of Lela Mae Williams, I think of, you know, I’m one of seven, right? Like, when I think about this woman and a single mother at that, with her nine children, the fact that she puts on her Sunday best, she puts on a black dress and pearls and white high heels, probably the best that she had, my heart is broken, because, you know, I know that she’s about to be duped, but she didn’t know that.
She believed in the basic decency and humanity of other human beings. She believed that people would not try to harm her or her nine children. That’s just basic human decency. And I think we need to see more of that. I think we need to see more people as mothers and daughters and sons and brothers and children and elders and hard workers.
We need to see that. Because it’s true. That’s not a hoax. That’s not a joke. That’s real.
Maddow: That’s so simple and yet so hard, right? It’s the most basic thing, but you also can’t legislate human decency. All you can do, I guess, is model it, like Reverend Ruiz is, taking in these immigrants at his church.
Aronson: And model it like the residents of Hyannis 60 years ago and the residents of Martha’s Vineyard today. I mean, last month, “The New York Times” reported that a few of the Venezuelan asylum seekers flown there by Ron DeSantis have stayed and found a warm, welcoming community.
And just like in Hyannis 60 years ago, letters of support have poured into the church that has served as the hub for local relief efforts on Martha’s Vineyard. One of those letters said, quote, “Thank you for treating the migrants as people.”
Maddow: And we know from history that in 1962, that same kind of response sort of brought the whole thing to an end. It shamed the Reverse Freedom Rides out of existence. The difference between then and now is I feel like today shame is in very short supply in our current political moment.
Aronson: There’s something that Kellie Carter Jackson pointed out that I think is really important, which is that sometimes, even if people can’t be moved by shame, they can be moved by their pocketbooks.
Carter Jackson: In order to keep racism going, you have to invest in it. You have to really invest in — dollars, you have to invest dollars in it. The racism is costly. To engage in this practice logistically, let’s just talk logistically, it’s expensive.
Aronson: It’s expensive. And remember, the guy who was spearheading the Reverse Freedom Rides couldn’t get any public money for the scheme.
Carter Jackson: He goes to the Louisiana state legislature and he’s like, can we get $100,000? Okay, why? Well, we just want to put some Black people on buses and, you know, stick it to the North, like, see how they like it. And it’s like, no, you can’t get a $100,00 of taxpayer money for that.
Aronson: This is one of the big differences between the Reverse Freedom Rides and the immigrant busing stunts today. Today’s rides are being funded by taxpayer dollars, millions of them. After Ron DeSantis made a big splash flying those undocumented immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Republican legislators in Florida gave the governor over $10 million to pay for recruiters and buses and planes for more of these stunts.
And I think one of the open questions right now is for the people of Florida and Texas and anywhere else they try this stuff, how much of their taxpayer money are they willing to throw at doing this? I mean, those millions of dollars aren’t even going to transport people from Florida. It’s paying for DeSantis’ hired contractors to travel the country, trolling other states for undocumented immigrants that Ron DeSantis can send to places he finds too liberal. Does everyone want to keep paying taxes to pay for that?
There’s also an open question about what the courts might do to stop this stuff. The immigrants who were sent to Martha’s Vineyard filed a fraud lawsuit against Ron DeSantis, claiming they were deceived and coerced into getting on those planes. And last month in the Texas county where those immigrants were picked up to go to Martha’s Vineyard, the sheriff there filed criminal charges with the local district attorney.
Now, the sheriff hasn’t said who he’s recommending be charged, but the case includes felony counts related to the coercion of the migrants under false pretenses.
Maddow: So, I guess it’s still an open verdict as to how this whole episode, A, is going to end, and B, how it’s going to be viewed by history. I mean, clearly, Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas think this is hilarious, that the cruelty of this is what everybody wants, that this is a brilliant scheme that’s going to get them into the political strategy hall of fame.
Maybe they’re right. We shall see. But if the Reverse Freedom Rides are any indication, it seems more likely that history will not be kind, that this, again, is going to be the kind of thing that we want to forget as Americans. We don’t like to think of ourselves as capable of this sort of thing. So, maybe it’ll be memory-holed just like the Reverse Freedom Rides were.
Aronson: I’ll tell you what, if that happens, I will meet you back here in 60 years and we can do a follow up episode, okay?
Maddow: Excellent plan. I will be 110 and I will be so ready for it, Isaac.
Aronson: 110 years young, Rachel, 110 years young.
Maddow: All right, that’s going to do it for us for this episode of Déjà News. Isaac, what have you got for us next week?
Aronson: It’s a secret.
Aronson: But it is our final episode and it’s really spooky.
Maddow: Spooky and it’s the last one.
Aronson: That’s right.
Maddow: All right. That’s enough for me. That’s next time on “Rachel Maddow Presents: Déjà News.”
Déjà News is a production of MSNBC and NBC News.
Aronson: It’s executive produced and written by me and Rachel.
Maddow: Our associate producer is Janmaris Perez.
Aronson: Our audio producer is Tim Einenkel with additional mixing by Bob Mallory.
Maddow: Our technical director is Bryson Barnes.
Aronson: Our senior executive producers are Cory Gnazzo and Laura Conaway.
Maddow: Our web producer is Will Femia.
Aronson: Our booking producer is Valerie Champagne.
Maddow: Archival tape wrangling by Holly Klopchin and Johanna Cerutti.
Aronson: Additional sound from the William Brewster Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives at Cape Cod Community College.
Maddow: And from WPRI-TV and Nexstar Media, courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society. They are an absolutely invaluable resource for the people of Rhode Island and beyond. Big thanks to them.
Aronson: Our thanks also to Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson, who is the Michael and Denise Kellen 1968 Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College and the author of “Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence.” Check out her awesome podcast, “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” You’ll love it.
Maddow: Also, thanks to reporter Gabrielle Emanuel and her great public radio station, WBUR Boston, and WGBH, where she reported on the Reverse Freedom Rides. Support your local public radio station. I swear you will never, ever, ever regret it.
Aronson: And finally, thanks to Reverend Juan Carlos Ruiz, Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
Maddow: You can find out more about this series and you can see some remarkable photos of Reverse Freedom Riders arriving in Hyannis in 1962, including Lela Mae Williams and that beautiful dress. It’s all at our website, msnbc.com/dejanews.
Aronson: I spoke with Sherrilyn Ifill and she had this line that will like stay with me forever, where she said the thing that Trump realized was that there were all of these white people who wanted to be “free of the requirements of decency.”
Carter Jackson: That right there, that right there. Oh, my gosh. Yes, yes, yes, yes. That is the whole ballgame. Just tell me I don’t have to be decent anymore.