Thanks to the newly-launched U.S. Civil Rights Trail, travelers have connected access to more than 100 locations in 14 states that played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Tennessee has 10 stops along the trail that tell the stories of the brave men and women who brought words to action through peaceful protests and legal actions to secure their American civil rights. You can follow their footsteps through Memphis, to Nashville and end in the quiet but historically significant town of Clinton in East Tennessee to hear the stories of foot soldiers and learn the history of Tennessee’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Start your journey at the Clayborn Temple in Memphis. Clayborn Temple, named after the African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Jim Clayborn, became an important hub for meetings and organization for the Civil Rights Movement in the region. The 1960s saw Clayborn Temple serve as a popular place for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to give speeches and visit. The Clayborn was also instrumental as the place where The Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968 was organized, where “I Am A Man” signs were distributed and was the starting point for the solidarity march beginning February 1968. They marched from the church to City Hall carrying the “I Am A Man” signs.
This is the place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech on the eve of his assassination – April 3, 1968. On that night, 3,000 people demanded to hear Dr. King as he came to Memphis to support the 1,300 striking sanitation workers who met regularly at this church. Unfair working conditions and poor pay led to the strike and the response of a court injunction that banned further protests. King hoped their march would overturn that court order. To inspire the people, Dr. King famously said, “...And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
See artifacts and learn the history of the Civil Rights Movement and human rights movements worldwide at the National Civil Rights Museum. The Museum has memorialized the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King lost his life, and also preserved Room 306 where Dr. King stayed the night before his assassination. History dating from 1619 to 2000 is shared through videos, text, images, and multimedia elements. The Museum is open every day except Tuesdays.
Step inside the pristine Nashville Public Library and climb the marble stairs to the second floor where you’ll find the Civil Rights Room. This is a space for education and exploration of the Civil Rights collection, which includes black-and-white photographs of the events surrounding Nashville during the 50s and 60s. Sit at the symbolic lunch counter to see the Ten Rules of Conduct protestors adhered to during their peaceful sit-ins, as well as a timeline of local and national events. You can even see the intersection of Church Street and Seventh Avenue North through the library’s large windows where nonviolent protests against segregated lunch counters occurred. The Room is open to the public during regular library hours.
Make your way to 14th Avenue North in downtown Nashville to see the church that served as a meeting site for many civil rights efforts. James Lawson hosted nonviolent protest workshops in 1958 at the church and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had the Southern Christian Leadership Conference annual meeting there in 1961.
You can head to the Davidson County Courthouse next. In April of 1960, after the bombing of the home of Z. Alexander Looby, a lawyer for civil rights cases, 2,500 students and others met and marched to the Davidson County Courthouse. There they met with Mayor Ben West who conceded that segregation was immoral and that the city's lunch counters should be de-segregated.
Located next to the Courthouse, Witness Walls, created by artist Walter Hood, tells the stories of the events and the people who made civil rights history in Nashville. Walk among Witness Walls to see school desegregation, marches, meetings, Freedom Rides, lunch counter sit-ins and economic boycotts represented on the concrete walls. Witness Walls was dedicated in 2017 and is a project of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission’s Percent for Public Art Program.
The site of several 1960s sit-ins in Nashville is being reimagined into a restaurant and live music venue that will pay homage to Nashville’s civil rights history. The three-story, 30,000-square-foot building which was built in 1930, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Woolworth on 5th is set to open February 2018 to resemble the former Woolworths and its lunch counter. You’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the soul food served and live music grounded in the rock n’ roll and soul of the 1950s and ‘60s will be performed.
Fisk University, founded in 1866, is the oldest university in Nashville. The first African American university to receive accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Fisk University students were instrumental in many of the sit-in demonstrations throughout Nashville. You can learn about the university’s history and some of its famous alumni including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Thurgood Marshall (the first African-American Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) and U.S. Representative John Lewis. You can also visit the extensive art collection in the Carl Van Vechten Gallery.
Next, you can visit Griggs Hall, the first building constructed on the campus of American Baptist College, a seminary for black students. It became the center for non-violent training and activity in the Nashville area, especially the Nashville sit-in program. Griggs Hall was restored in 2015 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Tours are available by appointment only. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
You can learn about the courageous stories of the Clinton 12, who bravely fought for equal access to public education. Step inside a 1950s classroom and see what life was like under "Jim Crow" laws. Follow the chronological story of the desegregation of the Clinton High School, the first integration of a public high school in the South, with life-size photographs and narratives.
Check out these other Civil Rights trip itineraries: