A lesson from the past for Ron DeSantis

In this particular case, the Citizens’ Council had a specific target in mind: Edward M. Kennedy, the president’s younger brother, who was running for a seat in the United States Senate. “President Kennedy’s brother has given you a great reception in Massachusetts,” the council leadership assured them. “Good jobs, housing, etc. are promised.”

Kennedy, a summer resident of Hyannis, called the segregationists’ bluff: He hosted a reception for Harris, made up of local residents who gave him a warm welcome.

The story of the Reverse Freedom Rides took on new meaning this week when people apparently associated with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have pledged a group of Venezuelan asylum seekers that good jobs and housing, as well as expedited work permits, awaited them in Boston. Instead, the migrants were unknowingly transported to Martha’s Vineyard in an effort to surprise and expose the hypocrisy of liberals who oppose the Republican Party’s hard line on immigration.

The scheme didn’t work exactly as expected. The people of the small island warmly welcomed the asylum seekers, just as the citizens of Hyannis had welcomed David Harris some 60 years earlier.

Both stories share similar characteristics. In both cases, elected officials tried to corner their critics. In neither case was the scheme immediately successful, although today’s story has yet to unfold.

In mid-1961, the Congress of Racial Equality organized a series of Freedom Rides in which interracial groups drove Greyhound buses through Southern states in an effort to test the effectiveness of the Supreme Court’s ban on segregated facilities serving interstate travel. The Freedom Riders experienced frequent and backlash from local residents and law enforcement officials, who deployed terrorism and unlawful arrests and imprisonments. The Freedom Rides, still in effect a year later, proved a costly embarrassment to elected officials and business leaders in the South, who watched the region’s violent lawlessness splash across newspapers around the world.

The Freedom Rides came at a time when violence from the South, in general, threatened to become a drag on the region’s economic prospects and posed a political problem for the administration in Washington, which was vying with the Soviet Union for loyalty. former colonial subjects in Asia and Africa, most of them non-white. When an angry mob held a group of black worshipers hostage inside First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, columnist Murray Kempton captured popular opinion in the North and beyond when he remarked caustically: “They are proud, brave and faithful people and some of them even found time to worry about the wives of the stalwarts of the White Citizens’ Councils who might have to cook their own breakfasts on morning.

The white South had a public relations problem.

Enter George Singlemann, a member of the Greater New Orleans Citizens’ Council and aide to Leander Perez, the city’s leading segregationist — a man so extreme in his anti-black and anti-Semitic biases that the local Catholic bishop excommunicated him. Singlemann’s idea was simple: Northern white liberals, he argued, were hypocrites, and their hypocrisy needed to be exposed. Safe in their urban and suburban white enclaves, they could look down on Southern segregationists because they didn’t have to live, work, and go to school with African Americans.

By busing thousands of black people from the South to northern communities, the Citizens’ Council could bring the civil rights movement back to the North. Northern whites, he surmised, were no more interested in sharing their towns and suburbs with blacks than were southern whites. It was with this sentiment in mind that the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution that proposed to “redistribute the dissatisfied black population to other areas where political leaders consistently demand equal rights for all persons without regard to the constitution, judicial precedent and rights”. States. »

Across the South, citizens’ councils as far away as Macon, Ga., and Selma, Ala., Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss., lied with impunity, assuring black residents that jobs and homes awaited them in their new home states. This has never been the case, especially on Cape Cod, where the off-season unemployment rate normally hovered around 20%. A man who was explicitly promised a job and a home in Cape Town by the Citizens’ Council told reporters he felt cheated. “I would like to get my hands on those two men who shot me for coming here,” he fumed.

In the end, the plan turned out to be half way too clever. White political and business leaders never fully committed to funding it and were divided on its effectiveness. In a decade when about 400 black Southerners migrated Daily heading north, voluntarily and on their own, in search of a more hospitable political and economic environment, the Reverse Freedom Rides eventually resettled about 200 people in one year.

Some northern white mayors complained that their communities were already suffering from high unemployment and a housing crisis, perhaps proving Singlemann’s point. But for the most part, Northerners pointed to the Reverse Freedom Rides as another example of the deplorable South. It was “a cheap traffic in human misery from the racists of the South”, the New York Time editorialized. The Ohio governor compared it to “Hitler and his Nazis forcing the Jews out of Germany.” Northern senators have denounced the White Citizens’ Councils as “cruel and callous” and displaying a “shameful lack of judgment.” When asked to intervene, President John F. Kennedy, normally restrained in his condemnation of the white South, replied that “it’s a pretty cheap exercise.”

Even many southern white civic leaders have joined in the chorus of criticism. The Richmond Times-Dispatch stated that “we will be open to the imputation that we are not concerned with human issues, but rather with propaganda”. In Little Rock, the Arkansas Gazette argued that the scheme had “never been condoned by the most thinking people here” and argued that “these people” – members of the black community – “are our responsibility, unless they choose to leave on their own initiative. In New Orleans, a popular radio show denounced the campaign as “sick sensationalism bordering on silly.”

Short-lived and ultimately a failure, the Reverse Freedom Rides did little to bolster the reputation of the South and, at least on the sidelines, probably caused him more harm.

The irony, of course, was that the White Citizens Council didn’t really need to do a cheap shot. The North already had a large black population, a population that had grown by leaps and bounds since the start of World War II. Certainly, in the North, black people could vote and build political power. But a complex thicket of discrimination in housing, jobs, credit, banking and policing – and in the provision of public services such as education and infrastructure – has made black people second-class citizens in the most northern locations. In the mid-1960s, urban unrest and protests over school desegregation and housing would expose these inequalities.

Singlemann was not wrong, per se, when he observed a certain comfortable hypocrisy on the part of northern liberals. He was just “dumb” in the way he tried to expose her.

As was the case 60 years ago, politicians last week used a group of vulnerable people to change the subject – to move the political debate to more comfortable ground.

Are many people who live far from the border hypocritical on the issue of immigration? Probably, in some ways. Large numbers of immigrants live in blue cities and states, many of whom are undocumented, and citizens who live in these places benefit from cheap labor and services. Whether in Massachusetts or Florida, undocumented residents face profound challenges and disadvantages, even as they are a vital part of the regional economy.

But that’s not quite the point. Nor was that the goal in 1962. The Reverse Freedom Rides were not a constructive attempt to solve a broad political and social problem. They were, as President Kennedy said, “rather cheap exercise.”

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