The Story Of The Reverse Freedom Rides

Jan 1, 2020
Originally published on January 1, 2020 8:32 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The summer of 1961 was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. And that is when black and white activists known as the Freedom Riders set out to integrate bus travel and challenged Jim Crow laws. But what happened a year later has largely been forgotten. That is when Southern segregationists fought back. Their victims were poor African Americans. From NPR's Code Switch podcast, Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WGBH in Boston has the story of the Reverse Freedom Rides.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Late on a Wednesday afternoon in May 1962, a Greyhound bus arrived in Hyannis, Mass. The doors opened at the bus stop closest to the summer White House, where President John Kennedy vacationed. Lela Mae Williams and her nine youngest children stepped onto the pavement. Lela Mae looked immaculate despite a three-day journey from Arkansas.

BETTY WILLIAMS: She had on a hat - white hat. She had the pearls - a roll of pearls.

EMANUEL: Betty Williams, one of Lela Mae's daughters, remembers that her mother was all dressed up and ready to start a new life.

B WILLIAMS: She was going to have a job, and she was going to be able to support her family.

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MARGARET MOSELEY: 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.

EMANUEL: The president did not come to meet them, but Margaret Moseley did. Moseley was part of the local NAACP. What she knew and the arrivals didn't was that there would be no presidential welcome, no jobs, no permanent housing.

Lela Mae's family and about 200 other African Americans that year were pawns in a segregationist game.

MICKEY WILLIAMS: So when they put us on that bus and they brought us to the Kennedy compound, they was almost saying to the Kennedys - here you go; here's, you know, calling them [expletive] lovers. You know, here you go. Here they are.

EMANUEL: That's Mickey Williams, one of Lela Mae's sons. He was 5 and on the bus that pulled into Hyannis that day in 1962. A year before, segregationists were furious about the Freedom Rides. They decided to retaliate by tricking African Americans into moving north. Amis Guthridge of Arkansas helped spearhead the effort, and he talked about it back then to a TV reporter.

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AMIS GUTHRIDGE: We're going to find out if people like Mr. Ted Kennedy and the Kennedys - all of them - are - really do have an interest in the Negro people, really do have a love for him - for the Negro or - and a desire to help him.

EMANUEL: The vision had been to send thousands north. The reality was far smaller. Only a couple hundred African Americans - mostly from Arkansas and Louisiana - accepted the tickets to New York, New Hampshire, California, Minnesota, Idaho. The largest number - nearly 100 - went to the bus stop closest to the Kennedy compound in Massachusetts. That was far, far away from the Williamses' home in rural Arkansas. Mickey and Betty remember growing up there as both idyllic and tragic.

M WILLIAMS: We were poor. We were really poor.

EMANUEL: While Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Reverse Freedom Rides, the warnings never made it to the Williamses.

B WILLIAMS: My mom thought when she came to the North, she was going to have a better life for her children - better jobs and better housing, better everything for all of us.

EMANUEL: It wasn't until much later that Betty and Mickey learned that their family's journey north was part of this bigger ploy. They don't know if their mother was coaxed or coerced. What they do know...

B WILLIAMS: Everything that a mom could do, everything within her power, everything within her reach, my mom did it.

EMANUEL: The Reverse Freedom Rides were a test - a test the North was meant to fail. In TV interviews, segregationists like George Singelmann, who came up with the original idea, claimed that the North had indeed flunked.

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GEORGE SINGELMANN: They have been crying the sing song 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.

EMANUEL: But in Hyannis at least, there were some people who did not shut up. A few weeks before Lela Mae's bus, there was a crowd of more than a hundred waiting to welcome the first Reverse Freedom Rider when he arrived in Hyannis. In the months to come, the spectators disappeared. Only Margaret Moseley and a few other local leaders, black and white, remained.

The segregationists specifically targeted single mothers with lots of children. Moseley remembers one of the kids asking...

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MOSELEY: Where are the cotton fields?

EMANUEL: Moseley was interviewed before her death in 1997.

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MOSELEY: I said, we have no cotton fields here. He said, well, what am I going to do to find employment? I can chop cotton. I don't know how to do anything else.

EMANUEL: The cruelty and cynicism of the scheme helped turn public opinion against it, and the whole thing ended just months after it began. But still, the Williams family and the other riders were 1,500 miles away from everything they'd ever known.

B WILLIAMS: It has been like a struggle - a really hard struggle.

EMANUEL: The nearby community college opened up its dorms. The local jail provided bedding. Betty remembers townspeople donated toys, money...

B WILLIAMS: Clothing, food - social workers, they always very nice to my mother. They was nice to my family.

EMANUEL: Despite the welcome, things weren't easy.

B WILLIAMS: I remember I used to go out, and I used to never smile that much. I never smiled. I don't know why that was. I'd never smile.

EMANUEL: While the Williams family was finding their footing, President Kennedy largely dodged the topic. He was asked about it at a news conference.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you have any comment on so-called Reverse Freedom Rides, whereby some Southern segregationists are attempting to send Negroes north?

JOHN F KENNEDY: Yes. Well, I think it's a rather cheap exercise. And - you know, this country, people moving every day by the thousands...

EMANUEL: He ended up saying the South shouldn't be defined by the Reverse Freedom Rides. But it did define the Williams family. Like many of those sent to Hyannis, they eventually moved to Boston in search of work. Things they'd never experienced in their tiny Southern town began to define their lives - drugs, jail, neighbors who didn't know or care about them. And then there were things they were familiar with - racism.

M WILLIAMS: We were being attacked in school by white kids - young guys, old guys. They had dogs. They had chains. They...

EMANUEL: With time, Mickey and Betty have resolved not to focus their energy on the segregationists who deceived and uprooted their family.

M WILLIAMS: I don't - try not to let it consume me.

B WILLIAMS: I don't want no hatred to live in my heart nowhere. I don't have no room for that.

EMANUEL: Both now have children and grandchildren of their own. And it might have been pride or perhaps the haziness caused by the segregationists' lies, but some in their next generation grew up thinking their family had been heroic activists, not victims in a racist scheme.

JAHMAL WILLIAMS: It was always the Freedom Rides. Oh, we were Freedom Riders.

EMANUEL: Jahmal is one of Betty's sons. It was only in 2013, at his grandmother's funeral, that Jahmal saw a pamphlet about the Reverse Freedom Rides.

J WILLIAMS: And I was like - whoa. It is a horrible thing, the game of politics that these guys were playing. But at the same time, I would not be here if that game was not played.

EMANUEL: Jahmal says he's still figuring out what to think. But he knows one thing for sure - his grandmother and mother fought really hard for a better life. And when the world treated them harshly, he says, they kept looking for sunlight.

For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.