Republican Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas have garnered significant media attention for flying and busing migrants from their states to New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Martha’s Vineyard. Ostensibly, this political stunt is to make a point about immigration, with a flagrant disregard for the dignity and humanity of the migrants themselves.
Some legal experts have likened the stunt to human trafficking or kidnapping, especially as reports come to light that the governors and their administrations may have misled some migrants by making promises officials couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep. Sarah Sherman-Stokes, an immigration law professor, told The Washington Post the stunt was “perilously close to human trafficking,” though it is not yet clear if the trips themselves are a crime.
Crime or not, the governors are violating a rule as old as humanity itself, a key part of my faith and many other faiths — “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” A verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes comes to mind as well: “what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” That’s because this political stunt is reminiscent of another shameful chapter in American history: the “Reverse Freedom Rides” of 1962 and 1963.
These stunts were the invention of the white supremacist network of Citizens’ Councils to mock and ridicule the Freedom Riders and the American Civil Rights Movement. Unlike the Freedom Rides, which took Black and white civil rights activists to the South to protest the continued segregation of interstate bus systems, the Reverse Freedom Rides promised Black families a new life of prosperity in northern states, an escape from the discrimination and poverty of Jim Crow, and offered a free one-way trip.
As many as 300 African Americans were bused away from the South by their fellow citizens. Unsurprisingly, the jobs and resources they were promised on arrival rarely materialized. The New York Times wrote in an editorial that the Reverse Freedom Rides were “a cheap trafficking in human misery on the part of Southern racists.”
Parodying the Freedom Rides and diverting media attention from the plight of African Americans in the South was an important objective for the White Citizens’ Councils because the Freedom Rides — and the violence against the participants — laid bare the sins not only of a region, but also of our entire nation. Firebombs, murders, and assassinations could not be ignored.
Another purpose of the Reverse Freedom Rides was to mock northern leaders and force them to come to the assistance of their new residents, testing the resolve of their statements in support of racial equality.
Still, the Reverse Freedom Rides also revealed supposedly “moderate” segregationists as extremists. As historian Clive Webb wrote, “The Reverse Freedom Rides had been conceived as a challenge to the sanctimonious criticisms of the white South by Northern liberals. It was therefore ironic that the campaign should compound popular conceptions of white Southerners’ racial intolerance at a time when more progressive forces were beginning to emerge in the region.”
Abbott and DeSantis are using the same tactics as segregationists and the White Citizens’ Councils, and they are making the same mistakes. By using human beings as political pawns, they are acknowledging their intolerance and putting it on display for all to see.
Even the geography is similar. The Reverse Freedom Rides sent many families to Hyannis Port, Mass., near then President John Kennedy’s family compound, near the island of Martha’s Vineyard. The victims of DeSantis’ stunt could travel there by ferry. Black Americans were sent to the Kennedys home; migrants are being sent to Vice President Harris’s residence in Washington, D.C.
What is different about this new experiment in political trafficking is that it was endorsed and paid for by the governments of Florida and Texas. The Citizens’ Councils tried but were unsuccessful in gaining funding from the Louisiana legislature for the Reverse Freedom Rides. Most organizations like the Citizens’ Councils no longer operate in daylight, so instead of white supremacy by proxy, these governors are engaging in white supremacy by state action.
Nevertheless, as an art professor for 40 years, I know a derivative work when I see it. The tactics are straight out of the Jim Crow playbook. While the White Citizens’ Councils of yesterday would be proud, those of us who believe in the dignity of all people are ashamed.
US Representative Alma Adams represents North Carolina’s 12th congressional district.