One of the most memorable episodes of the Civil Rights Movement was the 1961 Freedom Rides.
In contrast, few people have ever heard about the 1962 “Reverse Freedom Rides,” designed as a response to the brave protest of the previous year. Organized by Southern segregationists to embarrass Northern supporters of the freedom struggle, the “Reverse Freedom Rides” were a flop.
Fifty years later, this episode is worth revisiting for what it reveals about perceptions of Minneapolis in the 1960s. Today, our city is known for its racial disparities. Fifty years ago, it was known as a wellspring of support for civil rights.
The Freedom Rides were organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge the segregation of interstate travel. Between May and November in 1961 racially mixed groups boarded buses and traveled together through the deep south where they were greeted by police and angry mobs. Riders risked their lives to illuminate the brutality of Jim Crow in the hopes of forcing a response from the federal government, which had chosen to ignore discriminatory practices in the South.
In the aftermath of the Freedom Rides, a group of segregationists associated with the White Citizens Council in New Orleans vowed to retaliate against northern supporters of the movement. Led by George Singelmann, this group from Louisiana devised a mean-spirited publicity stunt that sought to “expose the hypocrisy” of Northern communities. They recruited African Americans interested in leaving the South and gave them one-way bus tickets and a promise that “northern cities will certainly welcome you and help you get settled.” Participants were unaware that the communities at the end of their journey were unprepared for their arrival.
The group targeted communities that had produced supporters of civil rights — like Hyannis, Mass., which was home to President Kennedy’s family compound. In December 1962, Singelmann turned his attention to Minneapolis, which seen as the home of Senator Hubert Humphrey, the former Minneapolis mayor and a known champion of civil rights. Singelmann asserted that “Senator Humphrey is the No. 1 exponent of civil rights in the nation. And we feel therefore, that it is fitting for him to have some of Louisiana’s fine Negro citizens as his dinner guest on Christmas Day.”
A memo tucked away in Mayor Naftalin’s Commission on Human Relations files in the Tower Archives at City Hall explains that a number of “Reverse Freedom Riders” were expected to arrive in Minneapolis on Christmas Day in 1962. The city made preparations for assisting these individuals once they arrived.
The White Citizen Council argued that an influx of southern migrants would show the gap between the rhetoric of civil rights and the reality of racial attitudes in the North. They selected participants they believed would “exhibit the Negroes as face-to-face examples of racial inferiority, fully justifying the philosophy of the segregationists.”
Ultimately, the riders never arrived in Minneapolis. Negative attention forced Singelmann to rethink his plans. But had he moved forward, Minneapolis stood at the ready to ensure this racist scheme would flounder on the shoals of its obviously malicious intent.
As for the “Reverse Freedom Riders” who did end up traveling north, many of them took advantage of the opportunity provided by the segregationists. They used the free bus tickets to get out of the South and make a better life for their children.
The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. For more details visit www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject