How This Trick to Bus Black Americans Out of the South Backfired
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if it sounds too good to be true …
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Three dapper Black men — Eddie Rose, Almer Payton and Willie Ramsey — dressed up in their finest suits and boarded a bus in New Orleans, proudly clutching one-way tickets. Their destination? Concord, New Hampshire, with promises of fancy new jobs and the rare shot at a better life. At least, that’s what they were told.
The truth was far from rosy. Just as the heady winds of the civil rights movement were picking up speed that July 1962, dozens of hapless African-Americans from the Deep South jammed themselves into a fleet of gas-guzzling Greyhound buses and walked blindly into one of history’s cruelest hoaxes. Big, fat No Refund labels were stamped across their one-way tickets. Like all well-crafted cons, the deal was too good to be true: a free bus ride, $5 to buy food and, above all, a guarantee that “Northern cities will certainly welcome you and help you get settled.”
In retrospect, [the segregationists] looked so pitiful. They didn’t understand what they were up against.
Raymond Arsenault, history professor, University of South Florida
But that’s not exactly what the White Citizens Council in New Orleans had in mind. Instead, the “Freedom Ride North” was a devious publicity stunt pitched by then 46-year-old council director George Singlemann as a way to “help [African-Americans] go where they won’t be oppressed.” Translation? Out of sight, out of mind.
The so-called “reverse freedom rides” were a perverse parody of the more famous Freedom Rides, when 400-plus riders protested the segregation of interstate travel in 1961. The White Citizens Council devised the reverse freedom rides, a deliberate attempt by white supremacists to get rid of African-Americans in the South. “They wanted an all-white America,” says Raymond Arsenault, a history professor at the University of South Florida. The summer campaign — endorsed by the state of Louisiana — soon spread like wildfire and was replicated in Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama with destinations to far-flung urban cities up north like Cleveland, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Cape Cod. The council advertised in newspapers and even put up posters outside New Orleans’ prisons to recruit Black inmates near the end of their sentences. Singlemann targeted people who were unemployed, on welfare or had large families, fully knowing no prospects waited for them on the other side. Meanwhile, cities in the North were left scrambling to deal with all the sudden arrivals who had nowhere else to go.
Sure, the Southern segregationists got a kick out of watching unwitting Northerners squirm. But far from just being a practical joke, the reverse freedom rides had a bolder, more sinister purpose: to embarrass the white activists of the civil rights movement and expose the “liberal hypocrisy” of the American North, says Clive Webb, author of A Cheap Trafficking in Human Misery: The Reverse Freedom Rides of 1962. In Singlemann’s eyes, the reverse freedom rides were a kind of heartless lesson in reverse psychology. Indeed, “the Northerners perceived racism as a uniquely Southern problem,” but in truth, rampant discrimination crept through all corners of America in the 1960s. Blacks were often barred from more desirable jobs, housing and schools everywhere they resided. “They had a right to go into a restaurant, but still couldn’t afford the meal,” says Arsenault. So, the White Citizens Council felt justified in killing two birds with one stone — luring away Black people from the South while also poking holes in the North’s holier-than-thou ideals.
However, the ploy backfired. Many of the 200-plus riders — exact numbers aren’t known because Singlemann often inflated them — took advantage of the opportunity at hand. They used the free bus tickets to escape the South and find a better life for themselves and their children. “I am not sorry to leave the South,” remarked Louis Boyd to reporters in April 1962 after a long 43-hour bus trip from New Orleans to New York City. He brought his wife and eight children along with him for the ride. “There is nothing there for me.” Others simply returned back home, empty-handed.
Slowly, the reverse freedom rides fizzled out due to lack of funding and political embarrassment. Some church groups in the North actually met the buses on short notice, eager to lend a helping hand and give what they had, including shelter, food and even some job opportunities. “In retrospect, [the segregationists] looked so pitiful. They didn’t understand what they were up against,” says Arsenault. The momentous March on Washington, the Birmingham campaign and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s moving “I Have a Dream” speech were soon to come in 1963, overshadowing the reverse freedom rides — while the bitter White Citizens Council, resistant to change, found themselves on the wrong side of history. Even President John F. Kennedy himself called the reverse freedom rides a “cheap exercise” in publicity.
Today, you can still walk by the scene where New Orleans’ African-Americans were first duped, more than 50 years ago. But the former Greyhound bus station is nothing but an abandoned building now, with boarded-up windows, long lost to the fraying pages of history.
George Singlemann’s family did not respond to a request for comments.