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Reverse Freedom Riders: Louisiana's Racist Christmas Present to Minneapolis

Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention in 1948.

Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention in 1948.

More than 50 years ago, Louisiana segregationists were feeling the yuletide spirit, angling to give the citizens of Minneapolis -- and most notably, former Mayor Hubert Humphrey -- a Christmas present.

Their gift: hundreds of unsuspecting black folks sent from the South via one-way bus tickets to new lives where northerners "will certainly welcome you and help you get settled."

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The rub: The northerners on the receiving end had no idea they were coming.

This nugget comes via the research of Heidi Heller, a history major at Augsburg College and intern at the Historyapolis Project, which seeks to "illuminate the history of Minneapolis."

While researching race issues at Minneapolis City Hall, Heller stumbled upon a 1962 letter among Mayor Arthur Naftalin's files. It was addressed to the Commission on Human Relations, which was responsible for addressing discrimination and conflict in the city.

The letter warned that, right before Christmas, Minneapolis would see an influx of "Reverse Freedom Riders." They were blacks recruited by southern segregationists to relocate to the north and were "unaware that the communities at the end of their journey were unprepared for their arrival."

Writes Heller, "Intended to embarrass white supporters of the African-American freedom movement, this effort... sought to 'expose the hypocrisy' of Northern communities seen as widely supportive of civil rights. Minneapolis -- along with Philadelphia, New York and Chicago -- was one of the cities targeted."

According to Heller, these PR stunts were funded by the state of Louisiana. It was one of the ways southern segregationists retaliated against the Freedom Rides, protests organized by the Congress of Racial Equality to challenge the segregation of interstate travel.

In Minneapolis's case, says Heller, the Reverse Freedom Riders were meant to embarrass Minnesota's most famous politician, Hubert Humphrey.

Ultimately, the Reverse Freedom Riders never landed in Minneapolis. A New York Times article spotlighting earlier such stunts amounted to bad press for southern racists. Then it was learned that Humphrey wasn't even going to be in Minneapolis when they were supposed to arrive.

The idea was scrapped.

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