Reverse Freedom Rides

The Reverse Freedom Rides were a response by Southern segregationists in the summer of 1962 to the Freedom Rides of the spring of 1961. The organizers sought not only to make clear their opposition to the Freedom Rides, but also to embarrass civil rights advocates in northern states, including President John F. Kennedy and his administration.

The original Freedom Rides, sponsored by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and aided by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had begun on May 4, 1961, and were intended to test the federal government’s support for the newly decreed prohibition on segregation in interstate transportation. The campaign devolved into a spectacle as participating activists—African American and white—were met by violent mobs. Buses were set ablaze, and riders were regularly attacked upon arrival at local bus stations, the local police nowhere to be seen, as they had agreed to give the white attackers a certain period of unobstructed time before they moved in to “uphold” the law and restore order. These mass acts of violence were often recorded by the nation’s media and, when splashed across the front pages of national newspapers and appearing on the television news, introduced readers and viewers outside the region to a part of Southern life of which they had not been fully aware. In the end, the Freedom Rides represented a major triumph for the developing civil rights movement.

But it was not a win that white supremacists and hardline segregationists were happy about. Rather, while determined both to fight this image and to hold the line against the efforts of the growing movement, they also were intent on showing that Northerners were no better. In this spirit, they envisioned the Reverse Freedom Rides as a way to expose what they believed was the gross hypocrisy of the northern states, while also casting a poor light on the Kennedy administration. Thus did the organizers of the Reverse Freedom Rides call for groups of African Americans to be transported, largely by bus, to a range of northern locations, including the president’s home at Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. This was intended to embarrass the chief executive while making clear the organizers’ opposition to Kennedy’s support of the civil rights movement.

Ironically, Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had been vehemently opposed to the Freedom Rides and had done all in their power to forestall the campaign. However, the administration was compelled to enforce the law when movement leaders—looking to build upon their efforts in the Montgomery bus boycott as well as the lunch counter sit-ins that had spread across the South in the spring of 1960—began to test the new government ruling prohibiting segregation on all interstate transportation.

The Reverse Freedom Rides began in June 1962. The driving forces behind the effort were George Singlemann of New Orleans, Louisiana, who was a member of the Greater New Orleans Citizens’ Council as well as an aide to the city’s leading segregationist Leander Perez, and attorney Amis Guthridge of Little Rock (Pulaski County), an outspoken white supremacist and activist. Consequently, New Orleans and Little Rock were the central launching pads for the trips that garnered the most attention.

The segregationists made no bones about their intentions. Singlemann, who would later claim that the whole effort was his idea, was outspoken in his desire to embarrass Northern critics of segregation. He declared that the campaign was the South’s way of “telling the North to put up or shut up.” The Citizens’ Council’s grand plan envisioned sending thousands of Black citizens to liberal strongholds outside the South, but in fact, the ultimate number was more like several hundred who were spread among numerous destinations in states including New York, New Hampshire, Indiana, Idaho, Minnesota, and California, and in cities including New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The chosen destinations were based in part on the political leanings of the area’s elected representatives, with the segregationists seeking any opportunity they could find to embarrass their liberal counterparts and hopefully expose the hypocrisy of their public support of the civil rights movement.

To make all this happen, the participating groups used radio advertisements and flyers to spread the word about the opportunity to relocate to another state where travelers would be provided with a place to stay as well as employment. Citizens’ Councils from across the South—from Selma, Alabama, to Shreveport, Louisiana, to Jackson, Mississippi—enthusiastically aided the cause, telling lies in abundance to recruit people willing to pursue new opportunities and jobs in faraway places. The recruiters were particularly interested in attracting men with criminal records as well as single mothers with numerous children, believing that both groups would be less than welcomed by northern liberals.

While the first group, consisting of a large family from Algiers, Louisiana, left New Orleans and arrived in New York City on April 21, 1962, the one that got the most attention originated in Little Rock, in no small part because the chosen destination was Hyannis, Massachusetts, where President Kennedy had his summer home. The organizers sought to highlight the alleged hypocrisy of the president and the attorney general, while also hoping to disrupt the ongoing Senate campaign of the president’s younger brother, Edward.

The Arkansas leaders went to great lengths to orchestrate their effort. Arkansas journalist Ernie Dumas, then just a young reporter, recalled seeing trip organizer Amis Guthridge introduce a large family at a press conference in the Little Rock bus terminal following a 150-mile ride that Guthridge had undertaken from the family’s home in the Huttig (Union County) area. After the long drive, Guthridge treated the nine children to ice cream and root beer before holding a press conference where he praised the “fine” family while announcing that they were going to be sent to Massachusetts where the Kennedys and the state’s other fine people would give them a better life. Dumas would later recall that the family matriarch Lela Mae Williams seemed a bit reluctant, if not embarrassed by all the attention, as she ushered her children onto the bus.

Indeed, so bold were the segregationists in their false promises that some of the Arkansas contingent arrived in Hyannis convinced that they would not just be welcomed by the president but actually greeted by the entire First Family. Local citizens were welcoming, providing food and places to stay for the almost 100 transplanted Arkansas, the overwhelming number of whom were children, but the group quickly learned that the many promises they had received would not be fulfilled. Residents convinced officials to allow the Arkansans use of the dormitories at a local community college until school started. At that point, they were moved to Cape Cod’s Otis Air Force Base while residents and officials continued to help them find more permanent housing as well as jobs.

In the end, the cruel trick not only hardened feelings against Southern segregationists, but it also left many Black Southerners stranded, hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homes. In many cases—both in Massachusetts and in the other places to which people had been sent—efforts were made to raise funds that allowed some people to return to their Southern homes. But many remained in the northeast, Los Angeles, and the other destinations to which they had been dispatched, opting to begin their lives anew, albeit without any friends or relatives, not to mention the jobs, housing, and opportunities their recruiters had promised. The Williams family from Arkansas, once promised a visit with the president, ended up in a Boston housing project where the children grew up.

To no one’s surprise, while the leaders of the effort hoped to expose the hypocrisy of northern leaders, they were reluctant to make that the centerpiece of their message. Rather, Singlemann argued that the rides were in the grand tradition of the American pioneers who had piled all of their possessions into covered wagons before setting out for new lands. Meanwhile, Ned Touchstone, another of the effort’s leaders, said that the campaign was aimed at achieving a more equitable distribution of the nation’s Black population.

As heated as the Southern opposition to integration was, the responses to the Reverse Freedom Rides, even in newspapers in the South, were not universally supportive. As expected, papers like the New York Times lambasted Guthridge, Singlemann, and their colleagues, calling the idea “cheap trafficking in human misery on the part of the Southern racists.” But the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock also asserted that it was a scheme that had “never been condoned by the better thinking people here,” while the Richmond Times Dispatch observed that “we shall be open to the imputation that we are not concerned with human problems, but rather with propaganda.” A popular New Orleans radio program called the Reverse Freedom Ride campaign “sick sensationalism bordering on moronic.” One northern governor compared the rides to the Nazis’ deportations of the Jews. Meanwhile, when asked about the effort, President Kennedy tried to downplay the whole thing, calling it “a fairly cheap exercise.”

By late fall 1962, money for the rides was running short and the leaders’ hopes of leaving an impression of northern hypocrisy had been overwhelmed by an image of Southern callousness and inhumanity. The crass manipulations that had been central in recruiting riders had only reinforced developing northern attitudes in favor of civil rights.

In 2022, Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbott mimicked the Reverse Freedom Rides campaign to protest the immigration policies of President Joe Biden. In coordinating flights for groups of undocumented immigrants to a variety of places, including the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris, and, most prominently, the liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, right across the water from the 1962 destination of Hyannis, memories of the previous rides were brought to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.

For additional information:
Brantley, Max. “DeSantis Reimagines a Shameful Episode in Arkansas History—the ‘Reverse Freedom Ride.’” Arkansas Times, September 15, 2022. (accessed April 12, 2023).

Emanuel, Gabrielle. “The Cruel Story Behind the ‘Reverse Freedom Rides.’” NPR, February 29, 2020. (accessed April 12, 2023).

Fortin, Jacey. “When Segregationists Offered One-Way Tickets to Black Southerners.” New York Times, October 14, 2022. (accessed April 12, 2023).

Tucker, Emma. “The Relocation of Migrants by Republican Governors Recalls Painful Memories of the ‘Reverse Freedom Rides.’” CNN, September 20, 2022. (accessed April 12, 2023).

Webb, Clive. “‘A Cheap Trafficking in Human Misery’: The Reverse Freedom Rides of 1962.” Journal of American Studies 38, no. 2 (2004): 249–271.

Zeitz, Joshua. “A Lesson from the Past for Ron DeSantis.” Politico, September 18, 2022. (accessed April 12, 2023).

William H. Pruden
Ravenscroft School


No comments on this entry yet.