Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The arrival of a clutch of migrants to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City – sent from a southern state that did not want them as residents – triggered outrage from city leaders and civil rights activists. A US senator from New York denounced it as a “heartless display of theatricalism.”
A civil rights leader called it “a hypocritical effort to gain cheap publicity.” When asked whether the city would send the migrants back south, a city commissioner responded, “I have neither the authority nor the desire to send anyone back anywhere he doesn’t want to go.”
It was the spring of 1962, and officials in New York and other cities were grappling with how best to respond to an outrageous act: the decision of southern segregationists to begin funding one-way trips to the North for Black citizens in what they called “reverse Freedom Rides” – a jab at the efforts of civil rights activists to desegregate interstate travel.
Officials understood it was both a publicity stunt (as historian Clive Webb has documented, segregationists tipped off local media to the arrival of migrants) and an act of stunning cruelty (segregationists lied to migrants, saying jobs and housing awaited them in their new cities.)
Sixty years later, the reverse Freedom Rides feel newly resonant, as governors in Texas and Florida scheme to ship migrants and refugees from the South to northern cities with Democrats in power. On Wednesday, 50 migrants arrived in Martha’s Vineyard, an island in Massachusetts that serves as a summer destination for wealthy New Englanders and well-heeled, well-connected people like former President Barack Obama.
That scheme sparked both outrage and action on the tiny island, where residents scrambled to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the migrants, who had arrived with little more than each other and a map to the local community services center. Though the residents of Martha’s Vineyard had been caught off-guard, the plan had been heralded for months in right-wing media circles, where hosts cackled at the thought of liberal cities awash in confused and displaced migrants.
For Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who took responsibility for the Martha’s Vineyard flights, the proper people were outraged and delighted. Liberal shock, conservative glee: these were the emotions DeSantis hoped to evoke with his latest round of “trigger the libs” politicking. It is a politics devoid of efforts to develop workable policies, devoted instead to grabbing headlines and building support with the Republican Party’s Trumpian base.
The choice of Martha’s Vineyard, where the Obamas own a home and where many Black elites vacation, was no accident, any more than it was a coincidence that segregationists sent Black southerners to the city where activists founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If the White liberals of the North believed that the unwanted people of the South were so wonderful, the thinking went, then they could deal with them.
Except both the segregationists of the 1960s and Republican governors today based their plans on faulty understandings of northern life and experiences. Leaders in New York City and Martha’s Vineyard may have been outraged at the arrival of the migrants forcibly removed from southern states, but they did not recoil from the migrants themselves.
They worked to help the newcomers make a place for themselves: city leaders and local activists helped at least some Black southerners find housing and jobs, while on Martha’s Vineyard, there has been an outpouring of support to make temporary space for the migrants, even if the island economy, with its seasonal jobs and lack of affordable housing, makes long-term residence unlikely.
More than that, though, DeSantis did not understand that in sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, he was sending them to a place that was not solely populated by the wealthy and well-connected. The island hosts migrant communities from places like Portugal and Brazil, and while it is hardly a workers’ paradise, it is also not a place where issues of immigration status and labor are new concerns.
Those who cheer on the cruel displacement schemes out of Florida and Texas imagine themselves as populist heroes, sticking it to both wealthy northerners and undocumented migrants. But this isn’t a populism meant to expand the Republican base or build a real working-class alliance, nor is it a populism meant to solve thorny issues of immigration, labor, and interstate tensions.
It’s a populism of resentment and cruelty, an effort to please the voters who still cheer on former President Donald Trump and to win another round of plaudits in right-wing media. And like the reverse Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, it is just one part of a project of massive resistance to civil rights, the federal government and, ultimately, liberal democracy.