The year was 1961 and the Civil Rights Movement was already in full swing.
Lead by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), on May 4, seven Black people and six white people set out on a bus trip from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, La. to test the Supreme Court’s 1960 decision that interstate passengers had a right to be served without discrimination.
A similar movement in Nashville desegregated lunch counters and movie theaters in the city; Freedom Riders hoped to further defy Jim Crow laws in the Deep South, and their efforts transformed the Civil Rights Movement.
Met with violence in Anniston, Ala. – from firebombs to brutal mob beatings – the riders split into two groups before eventually abandoning their movement.
And though CORE ended its freedom rides, others stepped in to continue the organization’s efforts.
Student activists from Nashville’s A&I State University (now Tennessee State) traveled to Jackson, Miss. And that’s when they met Jim Ruth, a 21-year-old Trailways bus driver.
“They had a full bus load of African- Americans and whites,” Ruth said. “We stopped in Jackson, Tenn. and picked up some shaving cream from my mother and daddy; they met me at the bus station in Jackson and we went to Memphis.”
After a stop in Memphis, Ruth drove the group to Batesville, Miss., then on to Jackson.
“I let ‘em off the bus, parked the bus at a motel and gave ‘em my phone number,” he said. “When they got ready to go back to Nashville, they called me.”
Ruth was the first Trailways driver to transport Freedom Riders. Other drivers, he said, refused the trip, but he readily accepted.
“I didn’t care who I was haulin’, but out of all of the years I drove for them, all of the schools I hauled to Washington, D.C. and New York and Boston, they were the best group of people I ever hauled.”
Ruth, who has lived in Brighton since 1997, said he wasn’t afraid of encountering violence.
“There’d already been some buses burned at Greyhound, so (Trailways) didn’t send their best bus, but we made it just fine … didn’t have any trouble going down there or coming back,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about problems … if they were going to die, I was going to die with them. We didn’t have one bit of trouble.”
On Nov. 5, Ruth was honored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP) in Nashville for the part he played in the Civil Rights Movement.
The event, attended by hundreds, honored the 50th anniversary of the freedom rides.
Ruth was humbled by the honor.
“Me being an old country boy, I’d never been honored like that. I was a celebrity they said, but I’m still plain ol’ Jim Ruth. I’ve had a great life, I have no regrets for anything I’ve done,” he said. “I never thought 50 years later they would be looking for me … never in my world. There’s nothing you can say; I’m just happy that I made a difference in something and in somebody’s life.”
During the event a documentary on the Freedom Rides was shown to those in attendance, stirring up memories from the Civil Rights era that made him emotional.
“They started showing this bus pulling into the bus station and you would get off and there was a sign that said ‘Colored People’ here and ‘White People’ here and I started crying.”
Ruth said a Greyhound manager sitting at his table told him, ‘It’s alright, Mr. Ruth. You done the right thing.’
A 1956 graduate of Chester County High School, he grew up in Henderson and was the president of his senior class.
Ruth began driving buses in 1961 and continued to drive for Trailways until December 1963, when an accident at Bailey Station near Collierville left him partially paralyzed. He was also a truck driver for 44 years.
Now widowed and considered fully disabled, Ruth lives on John Hill Road and attends Munford Church of Christ.
He says he’s proud of the contribution he made, however small or large it may seem. He is sincerely flattered to be honored by the NAACP and the very people he drove to Jackson, Miss. 50 years ago.
“I don’t know how a king feels, but I know how Jim Ruth felt. And it’s just ecstatic, I guess. My wife, my mother and daddy … they’d all be very proud of me.”