Opinion: DeSantis is taking a cruel page from history

Editor’s note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for Presidential Studies at Vanderbilt University. He 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.” Hosts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


The arrival of a throng of migrants at New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal – sent from a southern state that did not want them as residents – drew the ire of city leaders and civil rights activists. A US senator from New York denounced it as a “heartless display of theatrics”.

One civil rights leader called it a “hypocritical effort to get cheap publicity.” Asked if the city would send migrants back south, one city commissioner replied, “I have neither the authority nor the desire to send anyone anywhere they don’t want to go.”

It was the spring of 1962, and officials in New York and other cities were considering how best to respond to a shocking act: what southern segregationists called the decision to begin funding one-way trips for black citizens to the North. reverse Freedom Rides” – to civil rights activists’ efforts to desegregate interstate travel.

Officials understood it to be both a publicity stunt (as historian Clive Webb has documented, segregationists reported the arrival of immigrants to the local media) and a shocking atrocity (segregationists lied to migrants that jobs and housing awaited them in their new cities). )

Sixty years later, the reverse Freedom Rides feel a new resonance, with the governors of Texas and Florida planning to send migrants and refugees from the Democratic-controlled South to northern cities. On Wednesday, 50 migrants arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts summer destination for wealthy New Englanders and the well-heeled and well-connected like former President Barack Obama.

The scheme sparked outrage and action on the tiny island, where residents scrambled to provide food, clothing and shelter to the migrants, who arrived with little more than each other and a map at the local community service center. Although the residents of Martha’s Vineyard were caught off guard, the plan played out for months in right-wing media circles, where hosts snickered at the thought of the liberal city being filled with confused, displaced immigrants.

For Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who took charge of the Martha’s Vineyard flights, the right people were angry and happy. Liberal shock, conservative glee: these were the emotions DeSantis wanted to evoke in the latest round of “trigger the libs” politicking. It’s a politics without effort to develop viable policies, aimed at grabbing headlines and building support for the Trumpian base of the Republican Party.

The choice of Martha’s Vineyard, where the Obamas have a home and where many black elites vacation, was no accident, nor was it an accident that segregationists sent Southern blacks to the city where activists founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. . If the white liberals of the North thought the unwanted people of the South were so wonderful, the thinking went, then they stood up to them.

Except that the segregationists of the 1960s and today’s Republican governors based their plans on flawed understandings of northern life and experiences. Leaders in New York and Martha’s Vineyard may have been outraged by the influx of migrants forcibly removed from southern states, but they did not retreat from the migrants.

They worked to help newcomers make a place: city leaders and local activists helped at least some southern blacks find housing and jobs, while on Martha’s Vineyard there has been widespread support for migrants to make temporary space, even as the island’s economy, the lack of seasonal jobs and affordable housing makes long-term residence unlikely.

More than that, though, DeSantis failed to understand that by sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, he was sending them to a place populated not only by the wealthy and well-connected. The islands are home to migrant communities from places like Portugal and Brazil, and while it’s hardly a workers’ paradise, it’s also not a place where immigration and labor issues are new concerns.

Those cheering the cruel displacement schemes out of Florida and Texas portray themselves as populist heroes, rooting for both the wealthy and undocumented migrants in the north. But this is not populism designed to broaden the Republican base or build a true labor alliance, nor to solve the thorny issues of immigration, labor and interstate tensions.

It’s the populism of resentment and cruelty, an effort to please voters who still cheer former President Donald Trump and win another round of applause from the right-wing media. And like the reverse Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, it is just part of a project of mass resistance against civil rights, the federal government, and ultimately liberal democracy.