The significant impact Memphis and Nashville had on the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s can be learned when traveling along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which leads you to attractions like the National Civil Rights Museum, Clayborn Temple, the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library, and Fisk University. Hear the stories and see the progress of foot soldiers who led the charge for equality among all races in the United States. We’ve also outlined where you should stay and dine in Memphis and Nashville, rounding out your trip itinerary along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
The Peabody Memphis
Where to stay: Have an historic stay at The Peabody Hotel Memphis featuring beautiful accommodations, a hotel lobby that seems to be from a dream and a nod to the duck history of the hotel in the duck-shaped soaps, stitched ducks on towels and stationary and more found in the rooms. Enjoy relaxing spa treatments at Feathers Spa and treat yourself to a culinary masterpiece when you dine at Chez Phillipe inside the hotel.
Charles Vergos' Rendezvous
Where to eat: You can’t make a trip to Memphis and not sample the fine barbecue joints around town. One of the iconic places to dine is Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous where heavenly ribs are just an order away. The meat falls off the bone and is doctored in an array of spice that will make you want even more. They also have barbecue sandwiches served with slaw and beans, brisket, chicken and even lamb riblets.
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 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.
Photo credit: Clayborn Temple
Mason Temple Church of God in Christ
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 the 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.”
National Civil Rights Museum
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.
Photo credit: National Civil Rights Museum
The Hermitage Hotel
Where to stay: Stay at the same hotel as Oprah Winfrey, The Who, Adam Levine, Franklin D. Roosevelt others have when they were in Nashville. Constructed in 1910, The Hermitage Hotel is Nashville’s Original Hotel and is quite impressive with its grand staircase, ballroom, and veranda blended with Italian and French Renaissance touches. Be swept away in the opulence of your room as each features 500 square feet of space, soft bedding, Wi-Fi, plush robes, an in-room pillow menu in case you’d like buckwheat, down or memory foam pillows, large marble bathrooms and more.
Arnold's Country Kitchen
Where to eat: A Nashville staple, Arnold’s Country Kitchen has been serving Southern favorites to hungry travelers and locals alike since 1982. The ‘mom and pop’ family business serves up daily specials like chicken & dumplings, blackened trout and roast beef among sides like mashed potatoes, green beans, fried apples and delicious desserts.
Photo credit: Melissa Corbin
Civil Rights Room
Step inside the immaculate Nashville Public Library and climb the marble stairs to the second floor where you’ll find the Civil Rights Room, 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. A symbolic lunch counter can be found along with a Ten Rules of Conduct protestors adhered to during their peaceful sit-ins and 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 during regular library hours to the public.
Clark Memorial United Methodist Church
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.
After the home of Z. Alexander Looby, a lawyer for civil rights cases, was bombed, students and others met and marched to the Davidson County Courthouse where they met with Mayor Ben West who conceded that segregation was immoral and that the city's lunch counter 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. School desegregation, marches, meetings, Freedom Rides, lunch counter sit-ins and economic boycotts are 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.
Downtown Nashville Visitor Center
The site of several 1960s sit-ins in Nashville is being reimagined into a restaurant and live music venue, opening February 2018, that will pay homage to Nashville’s civil rights history. The three-story, 30,000-square-foot building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was built in 1930. The building is set to open soon to resemble the former Woolworths and its lunch counter. Soul food will be served and live music grounded in the ‘50s, 60s, rock n’ roll and soul will be performed.
Photo credit: Danielle Atkins
Fisk University 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.
Griggs Hall at American Baptist College
Griggs Hall was 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.