Oct. 7, 2019
After three days on a Greyhound bus, Lela Mae Williams was just an hour from her destination – Hyannis, Massachusetts – when she asked the bus driver to pull over. She needed to change into her finest clothes. She had been promised the Kennedys would be waiting for her.
It was late on a Wednesday afternoon, nearly 60 years ago, when that Greyhound bus from Little Rock, Arkansas 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 up to start a new life.
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“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 – her first on the topic. 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. Margaret Moseley was.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1962, Moseley welcomed a steady stream of African Americans like Lela Mae to Cape Cod. What Moseley knew, and Lela Mae didn’t, was that there was no job and no permanent housing waiting for her in Hyannis.
Moseley knew Lela Mae and the others were pawns in a segregationist game.
“It was one of the most inhuman things I have ever seen,” said Moseley, a longtime civil rights activist, 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. The hypocrisy of northern liberals 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 today, with racial tensions re-inflamed, some hear echoes of that segregationist past in America’s present. And for the families that came north based on a lie, the journey has cast an enduring shadow on their lives.
The Segregationists' Game
One hundred years after the Civil War, the North and South were still caught in a vicious struggle over civil rights.
In the summer of 1961, black and white activists boarded Greyhound buses and crisscrossed the South with the goal of integrating seating on interstate buses and in bus terminals.
Southern segregationists, who were still furious over the school desegregation fights that dominated the 1950s, saw the Freedom Riders as no more than sanctimonious provocateurs. When the buses pulled into cities across the South, they were greeted by mobs armed with bats and firebombs.
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 all a strategy to embarrass the South and capture black votes.
The segregationists decided to answer the Freedom Rides with the Reverse Freedom Rides.
They would use the same weapon – the Greyhound bus – and send African Americans to northern cities. And then they’d see if the North liked it when blacks suddenly showed up in their backyard.
“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 small-time lawyer from Louisiana 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.”
The segregationists tapped into a network of local groups called Citizens Councils. Despite the sanitized name, the Councils were “the Klu 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. He said he’s the type of historian who wants to wash his hands after he’s been in the archives. Fifteen years ago, he published the first – and still the only – major academic article on the Reverse Freedom Riders.
According to Webb, the Citizens Councils attempted to cloak their racism in respectability. 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 went to great lengths to make an official campaign for something many saw as publicity stunt.
There was an advertising effort, with flyers and radio commercials, to attract African Americans to accept the bus tickets. Their ideal recruit was a single mother with many children, or a man with a criminal past.
“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.”
Next, 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 into 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.”
But when talking to reporters, the segregationists were not always so transparent about their motives. They offered ever-changing justifications for the scheme.
Guthridge claimed the idea was born of a Christian charity.
“We began this program in a spirit of beneficence and humanitarianism,” he declared in one interview.
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 great 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.
Their actual motives – revealed when the TV cameras were off and a decade and a half had passed – were far more sinister.
“There’s something in the black make-up that when they get to 11, 12 years of age their learning ability comes to a grinding halt,” Singelmann said in an oral history interview. “Lying, cheating, toting and stealing, that’s the only thing they’re good for.”
It was this racist mindset that made Singelmann confident the northerners would reject those sent their way. He was relying on an assumption that northerners were just as racist as he was – but more opportunistic.
The Citizens Councils had envisioned sending thousands north, but in reality far fewer made the journey. A couple hundred African Americans – mostly from Arkansas and Louisiana – accepted the tickets to New York, New Hampshire, Indiana, Idaho, Minnesota, California and elsewhere.
The largest number – exactly 96 – arrived at the makeshift bus stop closest to the Kennedys’ “summer White House” on Cape Cod. For Lela Mae and her children, Massachusetts was far, far away from the Williams’ home in rural Arkansas.
The Williams Family of Arkansas
For generations, the Williams family has lived on the border of Louisiana and Arkansas. Betty and Mickey were born in the tiny town of Huttig, Arkansas. 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.
“My grandmother had a big flower yard with all kinds of flowers, and she had a garden with everything that you can imagine,” remembered Betty.
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 what he does remember is that the family struggled financially.
“We were poor,” he said. “We were really poor.”
Still Mickey and Betty said their late mother, Lela Mae – or My Dear, as everyone called her — 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.
Mickey remembers that their mother had three pictures hanging on the wall in their home in Huttig: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy.”
The Kennedys were seen as sympathetic to African Americans, even if they were slow to move on issues of civil rights.
“My mother was very much a Kennedy person, very much,” recalled Betty.
While Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against the Reverse Freedom Rides – and numerous civil rights organizations mobilized in opposition to the ploy – the warnings never made it to the Williams family. Instead, what Lela Mae heard were enticing promises.
“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. “Better everything for all of us.”
One account from the time suggests it was not only empty promises that lured families to leave their homes, but threats. Some Citizens Councils said they would take families off the welfare rolls if they did not board the buses.
Betty and Mickey do not know if their mother was coaxed or coerced. But they are sure that their mother was grasping for anything that might help her children.
“Everything that a mom could do, everything within her power, everything within her reach, my mom did it,” said Betty.
According to a local newspaper article, Lela Mae told the segregationists that she couldn’t take her children north to meet the Kennedys until they’d finished the school year.
Class let out on a Friday. That Sunday, Guthridge sent two cars to pick up Lela Mae and her nine youngest kids – ages two to 14. Betty would follow on a different bus later that summer.
Crammed into two station wagons, the Williams family was driven from their small town, 150 miles to Little Rock’s bus terminal. On the way, they stopped and Guthridge treated the children to ice cream and root beer.
Guthridge 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 in a recent interview.
Guthridge, in his heavy southern drawl, pointed to the family and said, “These fine, fine people. This wonderful woman and her fine little children,” Dumas remembered.
Then, Guthridge paused and, Dumas said, he thinks he saw Guthridge wink at his fellow segregationists, who sat off to the side.
A moment later, Guthridge resumed his speech, the same one he gave every time he loaded up Reverse Freedom Riders. Dumas remembered Guthridge saying, “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’ newspaper had recently won two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the school desegregation fight and its editorial stance supporting integration. In his liberal newsroom, Dumas said, the Reverse Freedom Rides were seen as a travesty.
Outside his newsroom, however, Dumas said, any local opposition was not based on concern for the families. Instead, people were concerned that the hoax would make Arkansas look bad and damage the state’s economy.
“The vast majority of white Arkansans, at that time, were virulent segregationists,” said Dumas, who still lives in Arkansas. “You could hardly find a white person who would say that they advocated integration at any level.”
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 looks focused. Some of the kids seem giddy, flashing smiles at the camera and playing with a well-loved rabbit stuffed animal. Others are subdued, sitting quietly in pairs on the wooden benches in the waiting room. The family has very little luggage. 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.
The Reverse Freedom Rides were a test. A test the North was meant to fail.
“They have been crying the sing song on behalf of the Negros throughout the nation. And, of course, now when it comes time for them to put up or shut up, they have shut up,” declared Singelmann victoriously in a TV interview in spring 1962.
But in Hyannis at least, northerners did not shut up.
When the Greyhound bus carrying the first Reverse Freedom Rider to Hyannis arrived on May 12, 1962 at 3:55 p.m. — about 30 minutes behind schedule — it was greeted by a crowd of more than 100.
David Harris, a 43-year-old army veteran in a suit and tie, received an enthusiastic welcome. 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. Only Margaret Moseley remained.
She was part of a small crew of Hyannis residents who wanted to prove Singelmann wrong.
Hearing media reports that Reverse Freedom Riders were on their way, religious leaders, the local NAACP chapter and a few concerned residents teamed up to help. According to notes from the time, author Kurt Vonnegut attended meetings. Half the group was black, half white. They divvied up 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, the bespectacled 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 an interview 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?”
Moseley told him there were no cotton fields. She said this news came as a new, 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, they got the governor to lobby for nearby Otis Air Force Base to open its barracks.
At Otis, the rules were strict. Curfew was at 8 p.m. Lights out at 8:30. 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.”
Moseley — who had been instrumental in founding the Cape Cod chapter of the NAACP a year earlier — enlisted friends to help drive the families between the barracks and town.
But their efforts didn’t stave off accusations from the segregationists that Hyannis was practicing forced segregation. 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 to Newburyport, Massachusetts. 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.”
As the Reverse Freedom Riders adjusted to their new lives, the country around them debated what their journey meant.
One northern governor compared the Reverse Freedom Rides to Nazis deporting Jews. A southern congressman delighted in watching the North squirm. 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 in, the standard reply from the White House 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 stuttered and stumbled and tried to dodge the question for more than a minute.
Outside the White House, there were those who wrote vitriolic 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.
Soon, the business community got involved. The Automobile Legal Association, an industry lobbying group that also offered emergency road services and touring guides, “blacklisted” Arkansas and Louisiana, the two states that had sent the most African Americans north. Its general manager, Philip Thibodeau, wrote, “Vacation should provide relaxation and education and it is quite evident that tourists can learn very little in States where traffic in human misery is practiced.”
In Little Rock, there was anxiety about the economic impact. The Little Rock Chamber of Commerce released a statement saying the Reverse Freedom Rides are “neither a right nor popular answer to one of the most serious problems facing this generation.”
This reflected a growing concern that the scars inflicted on the city from its nationally televised school desegregation fight would be made permanent, in the eyes of the country, if the Reverse Freedom Rides were allowed to continue.
By late fall, funds were drying up, and riders were hard to recruit. The scheme ended unceremoniously.
But even when it was over, the Williams family and the other Reverse Freedom Riders, who had been deceived and uprooted, were still 1,000 miles from anything that resembled home.
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.
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 flowers beds among the dilapidated brick apartment buildings. Mickey said it reminded the family of their grandmother’s flowers in Arkansas.
But, Betty said, behind the flowers, things were collapsing.
With their support network and their relatives half a country away, their tight-knit family began to fray. Things they had never experienced in their tiny southern town started to define their lives. Drugs. Jail. Neighbors who didn’t know or care about them.
“Things weren’t like that when we were in the South,” Betty said. “All this happened when we came here.”
And there was one thing that haunted them in the South that was also present in the North: racism.
Mickey was five when he came north in 1962. By the time he was in high school, Boston’s busing crisis was in full swing.
“We were being attacked in school by white kids,” Mickey recalled. “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.”
Disobeying his teacher’s instructions to stay put, Mickey ran and ran. He escaped, but “from that point on we had to be escorted up to the school by the Black Panthers,” he said.
This wasn’t what Lela Mae had envisioned. 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.
With time, Betty and Mickey have resolved not to focus their energy on the segregationists who tricked their family.
“I try not to let it consume me,” said Mickey.
“I don’t want no hatred to live in my heart. Nowhere. I don’t have room for that,” she said.
Betty, who is now 75 and still sometimes works cleaning houses, has processed her experiences with a therapist. And, over the years, Mickey said, he’s found healing in the Boston Public Library.
For a long time, when Mickey wasn’t at his job working for an electric utility, he was at a study carrel.
“I just sit there with ten books and a whole bag of nickels because every piece of paper that you photograph costs you five cents,” he said.
He’s been working on a series of children’s books. Illustrated carefully with colored pencils, they are biographies of uncelebrated African Americans who have done remarkable things. His goal is that, one day, children in his predominantly African-American neighborhood of Boston will read them.
Mickey said he wants the kids who read his books to think, “Hey, we are from something. Our people did something. We contributed, and we’ve got to keep that up.”
Even though Mickey has spent years flipping through history books unearthing forgotten stories, he said, only recently has he begun to think that his family’s journey might have a place in history.
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.
“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” said Guthridge in 1962.
“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. However, at a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin in April, Trump mentioned his policy proposal.
“I am proud to tell you that was my sick idea,” Trump said. The crowd cheered.
According to Webb, the story of the Reverse Freedom Rides is not a tale of how America 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.”
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.”
He heard mention of it here and there, he said, but only in vague terms.
“It was always ‘The Freedom Rides’ or ‘We were Freedom Riders,’” he said.
Only when his grandmother, Lela Mae, passed away in 2013 did Jahmal have 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,’” recalled Jahmal. “I don’t think my family knows this part of what the white segregationists were doing.”
Jahmal said he’s still figuring out what to think.
“It was 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,” he said.
Jahmal does not particularly like the label Reverse Freedom Riders. The journey for Lela Mae and her children was hard and scarring but, he said, it was not freedom in reverse.
When Lela Mae stepped off the Greyhound bus in 1962, a gaggle of reporters swooped in. She was the center of a racist joke. But Jahmal left the place where segregationists sent his family and became an entrepreneur in New York City. He lives there with his wife and two kids, and he has his own skateboarding company and brand. He’s periodically approached by reporters and filmmakers to be interviewed about skateboarding as an expert.
Jahmal said when he skates, he prefers the openness of the real world and its obstacles to the confines of a carefully designed skatepark. It gives him a sense of freedom – in some ways, Jahmal said, he has realized the freedom his mother and grandmother were seeking.
Introductory archival video courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Other archival material:
- The Rhode Island Historical Society
- Tales of Cape Cod Collection, William Brewster Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives, Wilkens Library, Cape Cod Community College
- Barnstable Patriot Collection, William Brewster Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives, Wilkens Library, Cape Cod Community College
- Courtesy of Mary-Beth Brague, from the papers of Rev. Kenneth Warren
- Amistad Research Center, Tulane University