Same Game, Different Players

If you read my last post entitled “The Migrant Vine Reaches Martha’s Vineyard!” you’d know that I hinted that the dropping off of migrants in Massachusetts was nothing new, but a repeat of history. “How so?” you might ask. This roundtrip post ride will make station stops through the present time, the past, and back to the present day to answer this question.

What’s Happening in the Present Time

Arizona and Texas governors have been shipping migrants who show up in their states to cities and towns, including D.C., for most of this year. More than 9,000 people have been dropped in the District. The “scheme,” as some refer to in this political playbook, became clearer when two busloads of migrants were dropped off at Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in D.C. And when two planeloads of migrants were dropped in Martha’s Vineyard, it sounded all too familiar. To understand this situation better, we need to dig deeper into the soil and pull out the hidden weeds. Here we go.

What Happened in the Past

Transporting migrants isn’t new. It’s history repeating itself. Six decades after the Reverse Freedom Rides, ugly history repeats itself.

The Freedom Rides of 1961 was when a group of civil rights activists rode Greyhound buses south to integrate the city buses in the setting of Jim Crow. This prompted a group of Southern segregationists (White Citizens Councils of southern elites, aka “Uptown Klan” and “Country Club Klan”) to retaliate to get back at the northern liberal involved in the civil rights movement. They concocted a plan to use the same weapon – the Greyhound bus – in reverse! Hence, the “Reverse Freedom Rides” was born. The segregationists’ goal was to expose what they saw as the hypocrisy of Northern liberals. These segregationists wanted to prove that Northerners were not so welcoming when large numbers of Black people showed up on their doorstep. 

Sound familiar? It should be if you read my last post where I spoke about the history of Blacks in Martha’s Vineyard.

The recent transfer of migrants mirrors the Reverse Freedom Ride of 60 years ago when white supremacist groups bused Black southerners to the North with false promises of a job, housing, and a better life. Segregationists persuaded poor Black families in the south to accept bus tickets north to places such as Hyannis, Massachusetts, where the Kennedy family compound was; they were known as “the reverse freedom riders.”

The Citizens Councils thought the arrival of Black people in the District would be a cause of great embarrassment to officials because it would expose the limitations of their own support of African American rights. Washington, D.C. was specifically targeted because of its status as the nation’s capital. Dumping indigent Black people at the holiday home of the Kennedy family was one thing, but bringing them to Washington, D.C. was a calculated move to put them at the doorstep of the White House!

Let’s be real. In essence, it was an effort conceived to remove “surplus” Black folks from the South for the collective sin of demanding full citizenship, to reveal the hypocrisy of white Northern liberalism, and to redeem the South by embarrassing Democratic politicians perceived to be complicit in the Black Civil Rights Movement. The campaign targeted “the poorest of the poor” who were most desperate for a change in their lot — single moms, large families headed by men who had chronically struggled to find work, and young men recently released from prison. One recruitment notice promised: “Free Transportation plus $5.00 for Expenses to any Negro Man or Woman or Family (no limit to size) who desired to move to the Nation’s Capital or any city in the north of their choosing.

Like today, it was falsely reported that these Black people signed up for the rides themselves because they were not satisfied in the south and felt oppressed. Wasn’t it “nice” to be afforded an opportunity to go to a northern area where conditions were supposedly better? Not!

The Reverse Freedom Rides transported roughly 200 Black folk from South to North, falling far short of the thousands its creators had envisioned. And when an anticipated $100,000 in funding from the Louisiana state legislature was denied, the White Citizens Councils were forced to end the rides a few months shy of 1963.

Here We Are Today

Then as now, the plan — or scheme as it should be called — used human beings who had already endured staggering trauma and tragedy as “political pawns” in a sick game. The fundamental idea underlying this racist strategy? Sending vulnerable people north to make a political point. Again, it’s almost identical to the present-day busing and flying of migrants to “blue” areas of the country — though using planes is new.

The Reverse Freedom Rides should today be regarded as rightwing proto-trolling, foreshadowing, and shaping white conservative politicking. Just like Greg Abbott’s bussing program, the Reverse Freedom Rides were nominally voluntary, though they leaned heavily on trickery and lies. We see a demonstration of the inequalities of power. If you can use the apparatus of the state to enforce your dominion over others, doesn’t that tell us something about who holds the apparatus of power in American society, both then and now?

Texas Governor Abbott and Arizona governor Doug Ducey, conversely, have been able to rely on taxpayer dollars appropriated by their respective state legislatures, together spending more than $15 million on this cruel political theater. Florida’s legislature has allotted $12 million to Ron DeSantis to fund migrant transport.

The past leads us through the parallels with today’s situation. However, I must point out that there are some major differences. The Reverse Freedom Riders were uprooted from their homes and became what they called at the time, refugees. The migrant families being sent north today are already refugees and don’t have a clear home.

Also, the size of today’s scheme has eclipsed the size of the reverse freedom rides by fiftyfold. No historical parallel is perfect. These differences in today’s situation is the power of the state: the Reverse Freedom Rides were sponsored and organized by private citizens. In 1962, the scheme was orchestrated by racist extremists. Today’s busloads and planeloads of migrants are arranged by its elected state officials.

And so it appears the playbook of who many believe to be racists, xenophobes, and white supremacists remain almost unchanged. From the refusal to acknowledge Black history to the bussing of migrants, the cycle just repeat.

Here’s hoping we someday reach a station stop where the lessons of the last go-round put a halt to the cycle. Clearly, we remain far from that promised land. But it does suggest at the same time that we need to be aware of the lessons of history.

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