Jimmy Allen Ruth, the Trailways bus driver for a group of Nashville Freedom Riders, passed away on June 2 while hospitalized in Bartlett, Tenn. at Saint Francis Hospital-Bartlett. He was 83 years of age.
In his early twenties, Ruth became a bus driver for Trailways on April 11, 1961 in Nashville and worked as a driver until December 1963 when an accident brought this employment to an end. Shortly after he began driving for Trailways, the Freedom Rides Movement of 1961 kicked off in Washington, D.C., on May 4 led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
In support of the Movement, a group of 13 individuals consisting of Black and White passengers boarded a bus headed down South to test the Supreme Court’s 1960 decision that gave interstate passengers the right to be served without discrimination. The group set out for New Orleans, La., but after experiencing violent incidents along the way, decided to split and take different routes.
One group of the riders boarded a Greyhound bus headed to Birmingham, Ala. The bus made a stop in Anniston, Ala., where the riders were attacked by an angry mob. They eventually made their way to Birmingham with the protection of a group of supporters of Civil Rights activist Rev. Fred Shuttleworth who lived in Birmingham.
The second group of riders boarded a Trailways bus also in route to Birmingham but would make a stop in Atlanta, Ga. Several passengers who boarded in Atlanta were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The Freedom Riders on board were taunted and attacked by the Klansmen as they traveled towards Birmingham. When they arrived in Birmingham, they were beaten by an out-of-control mob.
The violence experienced by the riders in Alabama led CORE to end the Freedom Rides. Hearing of CORE’s decision, student activists in Nashville who had been trained in non-violent tactics by Rev. James Lawson decided that violence should deter the progress of the new movement.
Groups of the student activists, both Black and White attending higher education institutions in Nashville, decided to make bus trips to either Birmingham, Montgomery, Ala., and Jackson, Miss., determined to test the Supreme Court ruling.
When a particular group of activists numbering a bus load decided to take the trip to Jackson, Miss., a bus driver was sought from among Trailway drivers. All of the drivers turned down the job except Ruth who at the time was 23 years of age. He agreed to drive the students and never asked any questions although he was aware of the risks involved.
Ruth was willing to aid in the cause for freedom and justice at all cost. In speaking later about his decision to transport the student activists, he said that he made the decision that “if they were going to die, I was going to die with them.” This trip was a one-time roundtrip for him made during the height of the movement in 1961.
On November 5, 2011 during its annual Freedom Fund Banquet, the NAACP Nashville Branch observed the 50th anniversary year of the Freedom Rides. The main feature of the event was to recognize and honor Ruth and local Freedom Riders for their bravery and willingness to sacrifice their lives to advance civil rights for all.
When interviewed after the 50th anniversary observance, he is quoted as saying, “he wanted to make a difference in someone’s life.” With no regrets of his earlier decision, he expressed great gratitude for being honored and continued to bubble with pride for what he considered to be a small gesture and learned later how significant a contribution he had made to the history of the civil and human rights movement during the early sixties.
Ruth was funeralized and buried on June 8 in Pikeville, Tenn., beside Rosie Angel Ruth, who was his wife of 38 years.