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The Cruel Story Behind The 'Reverse Freedom Rides'

Lela Mae Williams and seven of her nine children on arrival in Hyannis.
Frank C. Curtin
Lela Mae Williams and seven of her nine children on arrival in Hyannis.

After three days on a Greyhound bus, Lela Mae Williams was just an hour from her destination—Hyannis, Mass.—when she asked the bus driver to pull over. She needed to change into her finest clothes. She had been promised the Kennedy family would be waiting for her.

It was late on a Wednesday afternoon, nearly 60 years ago, when that Greyhound bus from Little Rock, Ark., pulled into Hyannis. It slowed to a stop near the summer home of President John F. Kennedy and his family. When the doors opened, Lela Mae and her nine youngest children stepped onto the pavement.

Reporters' microphones pointed at her, their cameras trained on her family. The photographs in the next day's newspaper show Lela Mae looking immaculate. In an elegant black dress, a triple string of pearls and a white hat, she was dressed to start a new life.

"She was going to have a job, and she was going to be able to support her family," one of Lela Mae's daughters, Betty Williams, remembered in a recent interview. Before coming north to Massachusetts, Lela Mae had been promised a good job, good housing and a presidential welcome.

But President Kennedy was not there to meet her. And there was no job or permanent housing waiting for her in Hyannis. Instead, Lela Mae and the others were unwitting pawns in a segregationist game.

"It was one of the most inhuman things I have ever seen," recalled Margaret Moseley, a longtime civil rights activist in Hyannis, in a televised interview a few years before her death.

Fuming over the civil rights movement, Southern segregationists had concocted a way to retaliate against Northern liberals. In 1962, they tricked about 200 African Americans from the South into moving north. The idea was simple: When large numbers of African Americans showed up on Northern doorsteps, Northerners would not be able to accommodate them. They would not want them, and their hypocrisy would be exposed.

The Reverse Freedom Rides have largely disappeared from the country's collective memory. The scheme almost never appears in history books and is little-known even in Hyannis, the primary target of the ploy. But some hear echoes of that segregationist past in America's present. And for the families that came to the North based on a lie, the journey has cast an enduring shadow on their lives.

The segregationists' game

In the summer of 1961, black and white activists, who became known as the Freedom Riders, boarded Greyhound buses and crisscrossed the South with the goal of integrating interstate buses and bus terminals. When the buses pulled into Southern cities, they were greeted by mobs armed with bats and firebombs.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader, shakes hands with Paul Dietrich just before a bus of Freedom Riders left Montgomery, Ala., May 24, 1961.
/ AP
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader, shakes hands with Paul Dietrich just before a bus of Freedom Riders left Montgomery, Ala., May 24, 1961.

Southern segregationists, who were still furious over the school desegregation fights that dominated the 1950s, saw the Freedom Riders as sanctimonious provocateurs. In a television interview from the time, Ned Touchstone of Louisiana—a spokesperson for a local segregationist group—said the North was "sending down busloads of people here with the express purpose of violating our laws, fomenting confusion, trying to destroy 100 years of workable tradition and good relations between the races."

Touchstone and other segregationists thought there was no way the Freedom Riders or their fellow Northern liberals actually cared about integrating interstate transit or advancing civil rights. Instead, they were convinced it was a strategy to embarrass the South and capture black votes for the Democratic party.

The segregationists decided to answer the Freedom Rides with the "Reverse Freedom Rides." They would use the same weapon—Greyhound buses—and send African Americans to Northern cities.

"For many years, certain politicians, educators and certain religious leaders have used the white people of the South as a whipping boy, to put it mildly, to further their own ends and their political campaigns," said Amis Guthridge, a lawyer from Arkansas who helped spearhead the Reverse Freedom Rides. "We're going to find out if people like Ted Kennedy ... and the Kennedys, all of them, really do have an interest in the Negro people, really do have a love for the Negro."

My mom thought that when she came to the North, she was going to have a better life for her children.

The segregationists tapped into a network of local groups called Citizens' Councils. Despite the sanitized name, the councils were essentially "the Ku Klux Klan without the hoods and the masks," said historian Clive Webb.

Webb, a professor at the University of Sussex in England, specializes in studying racists. Fifteen years ago, he published the first—and still the only—major academic article on the Reverse Freedom Riders.

The Citizens' Councils attempted to cloak their racism in respectability, Webb said. They held meetings in fancy downtown hotels and wore suits and ties."They could be members of the police force," said Webb. "They could be bankers, businessmen and the like."

These men masterminded an advertising effort, with flyers and radio commercials, to attract African Americans to accept bus tickets, bought with money the councils had raised. Their ideal recruits were single mothers with many children, and men who had gotten entangled in the criminal justice system.

"They targeted people who were either welfare recipients or prison inmates," said Webb. "People who were placing a burden, as they saw it, on public resources."

Then, they sought media attention. George Singelmann of Louisiana, who claimed credit for the original idea, had once worked in a newsroom. He made sure to alert the press.

"Negro 'Ride' Plan Stirs New Furor" read a front-page headline in The New York Times. The Boston Herald added, "14 More Jobless Negroes Sent North." As spring rolled into summer and then fall, nearly daily articles chronicled the scheme as it unfolded.

Relishing the coverage, Guthridge said in an interview, "If it takes two weeks, two months, two years, five or 10 years, we will continue it until the white people up there ... tell those politicians we are tired of using the American Negro for a pawn just for their votes."

The Reverse Freedom Riders Eddie Rose, Almer Payton and Willie Ramsey are shown with Citizens Council director George Singlemann.
Jim Bourdier / AP
The Reverse Freedom Riders Eddie Rose, Almer Payton and Willie Ramsey are shown with Citizens Council director George Singlemann.

But when talking to reporters, the segregationists were not always so transparent about their motives. They offered ever-changing justifications for the scheme.

Ned Touchstone said his primary motivation was "to bring about a more equitable distribution of the colored population." He added that African Americans were begging for assistance."Is it a crime to help people who come to you and say, 'Boss man, I want to go to the North'?" he said.

Singelmann cited American tradition as the rationale for the Reverse Freedom Rides."Our forefathers 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," he said.

The Citizens Councils' plan didn't quite work how they had wanted; they'd envisioned sending thousands north, but the reality amounted to a couple hundred. Those folks boarded buses to New York, New Hampshire, Indiana, Idaho, Minnesota, California and elsewhere. Lela Mae Williams and her children were part of the 96 unwitting Reverse Freedom Riders who arrived at a makeshift bus stop closest to the Kennedys' "summer White House" on Cape Cod. They were far, far away from their rural Arkansas home.

The Williams family of Arkansas

For generations, the Williams family lived on the border of Louisiana and Arkansas. Betty and Mickey were born in the tiny town of Huttig, Ark. They had a little farm and a big family.

Betty Williams, who was 18 years old when the family moved north, recalled the joy of fishing in the pond out back and scampering down the path to relatives' houses. But her memories are also colored by the trauma of whippings by the school headmaster and relatives dying without a doctor to visit.

"I remember the flooding in the house, snakes underneath the beds," said Mickey Williams, one of Betty's brothers. He was five when the family left Huttig, and his memories of the South are few and faded. But he does remember that the family struggled financially."We were poor," he said. "We were really poor."

Still, Mickey and Betty said, their late mother, Lela Mae managed to cook all their meals from scratch and insisted on schooling for every child.

At the time, Arkansas was segregated, and the Williams family was confined to the black side of town. Growing up, Betty didn't know anyone who was white.

"[I] never thought about why we were separated like this, why we can't go to school together, why we can't sit and eat together. I never even questioned that," she said.

But Betty's mother was aware of the political forces that swirled outside their three-room house, and she wanted better things. So when she heard about buses heading up north and promises of jobs and housing, she was enticed. And when she heard the Kennedys would greet the travelers, she was even more enthusiastic; she kept portraits of John and Robert F. Kennedy hanging on a wall next to one of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"My mom thought that when she came to the North, she was going to have a better life for her children, better jobs and better housing," said Betty. "Everything that a mom could do, everything within her power, everything within her reach, my mom did it." So Lela Mae accepted tickets to take her family up north.

The Sunday after the school year was finished, two cars came to pick up Lela Mae and her nine youngest children—ages two to 14—and take them 150 miles to Little Rock's bus terminal. (Betty would follow on a different bus later that summer.) Amis Guthridge himself drove them, and bought the children ice cream and root beer.

The segregationist lawyer had alerted the local news outlets that he'd be holding a press conference when they arrived. At the bus terminal, he stood at the center of a small crew of journalists. Ernie Dumas, a young reporter for The Arkansas Gazette, was there.

"He made a little grinning speech," Dumas, now 81, recalled. Guthridge, pointed to the family and said, "These fine, fine people. This wonderful woman and her fine little children," Dumas remembered. He thinks he saw Guthridge wink at his fellow segregationists, who sat off to the side.

Two unidentified women, residents of Hyannis, Mass., help some of the nine children of Lela Mae Williams (not in photo) off the bus, June 8, 1962 at Hyannis on their arrival from Huttig, Ark.
Frank C. Curtin / AP
Two unidentified women, residents of Hyannis, Mass., help some of the nine children of Lela Mae Williams (not in photo) off the bus, June 8, 1962 at Hyannis on their arrival from Huttig, Ark.

Then, he remembers that Guthridge said, "We're going to send them up to Massachusetts, and the Kennedys and those fine people up there are going to take care of them and give them a better life."

Dumas was not able to interview Lela Mae that May day in 1962, but he remembers her seeming a little reluctant, perhaps a little embarrassed.

In silent TV footage taken at the bus station, she looked focused. Some of the kids seemed giddy, flashing smiles at the camera and playing with a well-loved rabbit doll. Others were subdued, sitting quietly in pairs on the wooden benches in the waiting room. The family had very little luggage; after all, most of the Reverse Freedom Riders were told everything was going to be provided.

After the press conference, Lela Mae herded her children onto the bus, toward the back of the bus and then onward, toward a promise that was a lie.

"We called them refugees"

In the weeks before the Williams family boarded the Greyhound bus, the very first Reverse Freedom Rider to come to Hyannis arrived on May 12, 1962.

David Harris, a 43-year-old army veteran in a suit and tie, received an enthusiastic welcome by a crowd of more than 100 people. There were several speeches, plenty of hands to shake and lots of reporters. Senate candidate Ted Kennedy was there to meet him. Harris drew cheers when he told onlookers it "felt mighty good when I crossed that Mason-Dixon line."

In the weeks and months to come, the Greyhound buses kept arriving, but the spectators disappeared. Ted Kennedy never showed up again. The rest of the Kennedy family never made an appearance. Only a small crew of Hyannis residents, including the civil rights activist Margaret Moseley, remained.

Hearing media reports that more Reverse Freedom Riders were on their way, religious leaders, the local NAACP chapter and a few concerned residents teamed up to help. The group was half black, half white. They divided the tasks and gave themselves a name: The Refugee Relief Committee.

"We called them refugees. They represented what we feel a refugee is. They were homeless, broke, tired and afraid. We had to help them," Rev. Kenneth Warren, a Unitarian minister who was the chairman of the committee, said to a reporter at the time.

That summer of 1962, Moseley carried the bus schedule with her. Among her many duties, she was in charge of greeting the new arrivals."Most of the people who came had only a shopping bag with perhaps one change of clothing," said the late Moseley in aninterview with Tales of Cape Cod in 1994, three years before her death. The Reverse Freedom Riders arrived with "no money, knowing nobody."

Moseley remembered one of the children who arrived asking, "Where are the cotton fields?" She told him there were no cotton fields. She said this news came as a terrible blow. She recalled the child saying, "Well, what am I going to do to find employment? I can chop cotton. I don't know how to do anything else."

The committee scrambled to help, convincing the local community college to open its dorms to the new arrivals. The local jail provided the bedding. And when the summer semester started and students came back to the dorms, they got the governor to lobby for nearby Otis Air Force Base to open its barracks.

Some children of reverse freedom riders families toss ball among themselves amid Army barracks at Camp Edwards, Mass., June 11, 1962.
J. Walter Green / AP
Some children of reverse freedom riders families toss ball among themselves amid Army barracks at Camp Edwards, Mass., June 11, 1962.

At Otis, the rules were strict. Curfew was at 8 p.m., and lights were out at 8:30 p.m. Boys older than five were to be housed in barracks separate from their mothers. Heat and proximity to latrines were luxuries, not to be expected."They will be treated with firmness, with civility, with fairness, but not with familiarity," wrote Major Gen. Thomas Donnelly, the man in charge of the base. "The basic attitude is that these are people with problems that we are trying to help in finding solutions."

But their efforts didn't stave off accusations from the segregationists that Hyannis was practicing forced segregation. In his effort to prove that white Northerners were indeed as racist as white Southerners, Singelmann told reporters that Otis Air Force Base was equivalent to a "concentration camp."

Betty never thought of life in Massachusetts as a concentration camp but, she said, things weren't easy. "I used to never smile that much. I never smiled. I don't know why that was," said Betty, who joined her mother and nine siblings in the fall of 1962. She was 18 and eight months pregnant at the time, with her 2-year-old son in tow. Her older sister, Gloria, and her two children also came in the fall.

As the committee tried to disperse the Reverse Freedom Riders so it would be easier for them to find work, the Williams family was sent 100 miles north to Newburyport, Mass. And Betty did find work cleaning houses. While she noticed the kindness of the townspeople, she said there was also a nagging feeling of distance and difference.

She realized that Northerners "don't think the same; they don't do the same. The culture is a whole lot different from where we were raised."

"A rather cheap exercise"

As the Reverse Freedom Riders adjusted to their new lives, the country around them debated whether to intervene.

Illinois' governor compared the Reverse Freedom Rides to Nazis deporting Jews. A Mississippi congressman delighted in watching the North squirm, saying, "They want to 'free' the Negro in the South, but want to shun responsibility for him once he has been 'freed.'" Gov. John Volpe of Massachusetts pledged to help, but worried his welfare budget would be depleted. He asked the federal government to step in.

President Kennedy largely tried to avoid the topic. When worried and enraged citizens wrote letters to the White House, the standard reply was that the situation was "deplorable" but "there is no violation of law." When Kennedy was asked about it at a news conference, he paused before saying, "Well I think it's, uh, a rather cheap exercise in ...." He hesitated, stumbled and tried to dodge the question for more than a minute.

Conversely, there were those who wrote hate mail to the Refugee Relief Committee about how the Bible calls for segregation, and even sending gag gifts—including a live opossum and a goat to Hyannis for the Reverse Freedom Riders to eat.

But the prevailing sentiment was that the Reverse Freedom Rides exposed the callousness of the Southern segregationists, not the hypocrisy of Northern liberals. Private citizens from across the country wrote to offer their support. Some suggested housing the Reverse Freedom Riders in their own towns and homes; others wrote checks. The first donation arrived from Little Rock, where many of the Reverse Freedom Rides originated.

By the late fall, the scheme fizzled out unceremoniously. Funds that the Citizens' Councils had raised were drying up, and riders were hard to recruit. Betty Williams was the very last Reverse Freedom Rider to arrive in Hyannis, disembarking from her Greyhound Bus on October 17.

But even when it was over, the Williams family and the other Reverse Freedom Riders were still 1,000 miles from anything that resembled home.

The Williams family of Massachusetts

Like many of those sent to Hyannis, the Williams family ultimately moved to Boston in search of work. They lived in one of the city's most notorious housing projects: the Bromley-Heath Apartments. Milkmen and furniture deliverymen were rumored to dodge the premises.

"The projects were nothing to be proud of," recalled Mickey. His memories of the place are dotted with cockroach sightings and crumbling concrete.

She tried with every ounce of strength that she had to try to hold this family together.

As she had done in the South, Lela Mae tried to make life for her children as stable as possible in an unstable situation. She gathered discarded tires, filled them with dirt and turned them into flowerbeds among the dilapidated brick apartment buildings.

But apart from the flowers, things were collapsing. With their support network and their relatives half a country away, their tight-knit family began to fray, Betty said. Things the Williams family had never experienced in their tiny Southern town—drugs, jail and unfriendly neighbors—started to define their lives. "Things weren't like that when we were in the South," Betty said. "All this happened when we came here."

One thing from the South, though, had followed the family to the North: racism.

"We were being attacked in school by white kids," Mickey said, recalling Boston's efforts to desegregate through busing during his high school years. "I just remembered that they were all outside surrounding the school. White people, white kids. Young guys, old guys. They had dogs. They had chains. They were trying to get into the school."

Buses arrive at South Boston High School, Jan. 8, 1975 as classes resume at the racially troubled institution. Police were on hand to provide protection as black students arrived.
Buses arrive at South Boston High School, Jan. 8, 1975 as classes resume at the racially troubled institution. Police were on hand to provide protection as black students arrived.

This wasn't what Lela Mae had envisioned for her children. From one of Boston's harshest street corners, during one of the city's worst chapters, "she tried with every ounce of strength that she had to try to hold this family together," said Betty. After years of processing what happened to their family, Betty and Mickey said they have resolved not to focus their energy on the segregationists who tricked their family. "I don't want no hatred to live in my heart. Nowhere. I don't have room for that," Betty said.

Mickey, who has been working on a series of children's books about little-known African Americans who have done remarkable things, has spent years flipping through history books unearthing forgotten stories. But it's only recently, he said, that he started to think that his own family's journey might have a place in history.

Echoes of the past in America's present

In April 2019, historian Clive Webb was cooking in his kitchen with the radio playing when a news story came on. He paused as he heard President Donald Trump explain his idea of putting undocumented immigrants on buses and dropping them off in so-called "sanctuary cities."

"They want more people in the sanctuary cites. Well, we'll give them more people. We can give them a lot. We can give them an unlimited supply," Trump declared at a news conference. "And let's see if they're so happy. They're always saying, 'We have open arms.' Let's see if they have open arms."

At the kitchen counter, Webb said, he thought back to segregationists like Amis Guthridge who had said the same of the Kennedy family and black people. "In 1962, what was happening was the actions of a political fringe group," said Webb, "And in 2019, it's the federal government." (There is no evidence that the Trump administration has enacted the policy, and the White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

According to Webb, the story of the Reverse Freedom Rides is not a tale of how the United States is battling the same foes forever. Instead, he said, it is a reminder of how bystanders can foil a racist plot. "The white conservatives, who were behind that campaign then, actually underestimated the decency of many ordinary people," Webb said.

But the story has been largely forgotten by the next generation of Americans. Even the Williams family tried to forget. Both Mickey and Betty said their mother never talked about the trick that was played on her.

"She never discussed anything. Nothing. Nothing at all," said Mickey. "She didn't want to burden us. It was just pride."

The white conservatives, who were behind that campaign then, actually underestimated the decency of many ordinary people.

It might have been that pride or perhaps the haziness of the segregationists' lies, but the Williams' family lore somehow became that they were Freedom Riders, not Reverse Freedom Riders. Jahmal Williams, one of Betty's sons and a professional skateboarder, said that growing up, whenever stories about the Civil Rights Movement would flicker past on TV, his mother would say, "We played a part in this."

It was only when his grandmother, Lela Mae, passed away in 2013 that Jahmal had an inkling that there was more to know. At her funeral, he saw a pamphlet about the Reverse Freedom Rides. He went home and started Googling.

"And I was like, 'Whoa,'" Jahmal recalled. He's still figuring out what to think. "It was a horrible thing, the game of politics that these guys were playing," he said, "but—at the same time—I would not be here if that game was not played."

Copyright 2020 GBH

Gabrielle Emanuel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]