Reverse Freedom Rides

In response to the 1961 Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate transportation, White Citizens’ Councils in Alabama and other states across the South created the Reverse Freedom Rides program. Launched in 1962, it largely targeted poor Blacks on public assistance who were provided some spending money and bus tickets to northern cities with the false promise of employment and housing once there. 

Under the program, various White Citizens’ Councils recruited Black southerners to be displaced from their native South to the urban North. The Reverse Rides began in New Orleans, Louisiana, where council leader George L. Singelmann called for the displacement of Black locals to places such as Cleveland, Ohio; Hyannis, Massachusetts (where Pres. John F. Kennedy’s vacation home was located); and other northern cities. Singelmann hoped that the Reverse Rides would silence northern complaints about southern segregation. His initiative took off in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama. In May 1962, Singelmann held a luncheon with chapters of the Alabama Citizens’ Councils in Montgomery, Montgomery County. There, he spoke before local leaders as they prepared to launch their own Reverse Rides across the state.

Alabama council members held mass meetings to garner support for the initiative. They advertised in Alabama newspapers, conducted community-wide fundraisers, and collected money from whites across the state for the “Freedom Bus Special Fund.” Council members planned to purchase bus tickets for the Black women, men, and children they recruited. Montgomery Council chairman Carl Herbert Lancaster, Jr.  reported that the council received significant support from white Alabamians and that throughout 1962, they had received steady donations for the campaign.

Although the council did receive support from whites across the state, other white Alabamians and white southerners critiqued the Reverse Rides. Some believed that the organizers intentionally targeted poor Black women and men, instead of those who had participated in civil rights demonstrations and voting rights campaigns. Critics complained that the council’s goal should have been to displace civil rights activists and “outside agitators” and that the Reverse Freedom Rides concept missed the mark. Others asserted the council was deliberately subjecting Black residents to inhumane treatment and displacement.

Civil rights leaders and federal officials viewed the rides as deceptive and as a “cause for tears.” They denounced the reverse rides as a “cruel hoax,” a “venomous joke,” and “traffic in human misery.” Despite these critiques, including some from moderate segregationists, the Alabama Citizens’ Council continued with the Reverse Rides.

The council had certain criteria when selecting Reverse Riders. Black Alabamians considered prime candidates were uniformly chosen from the poor. Those who participated often saw local newspaper advertisements and inquired about the council’s initiative because of their desire for the economic stability denied to them in segregated Alabama. The push of poverty and pull of potential northern jobs motivated some Black Alabamians to apply for the Reverse Rides. Many of the participants depended on federal aid through welfare programs. Council members often complained that Black Alabamians drained community coffers through dependence on financial subsidies, although more than half of those who depended on welfare in Alabama were white. And although the council did select single men to displace as well, those considered prime candidates for the Reverse Rides were most often single women with numerous children.

To recruit Reverse Riders, council members promised fully funded bus tickets and false promises of northern economic prosperity. Council leaders assured Reverse Riders that they would have homes, jobs, and financial prospects once they arrived in northern cities. No such provision awaited them.

The Alabama Citizens’ Council displaced Black residents from across the state. Reverse Riders boarded buses in Jefferson, Bibb, Montgomery, and Crenshaw Counties and other locales. Once on the road, Reverse Riders traversed windy roads and bumpy interstates, and many experienced uncertainty as soon as their journey began. One bus was halted shortly after leaving a bus station in August 1962 after officials learned of a bomb threat against Greyhound and Trailways buses with Reverse Riders on board, though a search of the bus did not find a bomb. When Reverse Riders safely arrived in urban northern cities, council promises quickly proved false.

Reverse Riders were abandoned by the council once they left the South. Some found economic assistance through civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Others depended on relatives who had migrated North years earlier as part of the Great Migration. Others were left homeless, jobless, and further impoverished. And because of welfare residency requirements, many could not apply for federal assistance for several months after their arrival. These dismal economic conditions prompted many Reverse Riders to return to Alabama, a trend that led one journalist to refer to the Reverse Rides as “yo-yo rides” or “boomerang buses.”

Those who wished to return South did not receive assistance from the Citizens’ Councils. Bibb County White Citizens’ Council chairman Jim W. Oakley stated that it was not the council’s responsibility to aid Reverse Riders’ return. Many of the displaced were then left stranded in the North without financial support and without the ability to return to their native state, where many still had family members. At times, northern welfare departments, already struggling to supply subsidies amid high rates of unemployment, did not want to provide financial aid to Reverse Riders and issued bus tickets for their return. Given the lack of newspaper coverage, it is unknown how many Reverse Riders returned to Alabama and how many remained in the North. Estimates suggest that anywhere from 200 to 500 Black southerners were displaced during the Reverse Freedom Rides.

The Alabama Citizens’ Council’s Reverse Freedom Ride initiative died out by 1963. Within the next two years, Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which the council considered blows to their segregationist agenda. Although the influence of White Citizens’ Councils dissipated throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, members and sympathetic others continued to influence Alabama’s political, social, and economic institutions as landowners, lawmakers, and business leaders. Though the Reverse Freedom Rides did not endure, the forces that shaped the program continued to drive suppression of civil rights in Alabama long after 1962.

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George Singelmann and Carl Lancaster

Photo courtesy of the Montgomery Advertiser Archives. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
George Singelmann and Carl Lancaster

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Birmingham News Letter to the Editor

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