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Lorraine Motel - Credit Josh Ness
Photo Credit: Josh Ness

Your Memphis to Nashville Stops on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail

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.

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 can stay and dine in Memphis and Nashville, rounding out your trip itinerary along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

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Memphis

Where to Stay in Memphis

Have a 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 Philippe inside the hotel.

Day 1 

Breakfast at The Arcade Restaurant – Memphis 

There’s a reason The Arcade Restaurant is Memphis’ oldest café. Visitors and locals come here for the wide selection of breakfast items. French toast smothered in syrup, fluffy sweet potato pancakes that are a favorite of the Food Network, omelets by your own design, and the Eggs Redneck which the Travel Channel is a fan of featuring sausage, chicken or bacon with biscuits in gravy, eggs and hash browns. 

Clayborn Temple

Start your civil rights history 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.

Mason Temple Church of God in Christ

Mason Temple Church of God in Christ is where 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.”

Lunch at Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous 

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.

T.O. Fuller State Park – Memphis

Get some fresh air at T.O Fuller State Park full of hiking and history. This was the first state park open for African Americans east of the Mississippi. It’s named after Dr. Thomas O. Fuller, an African-American pastor, politician, educator, author and civic leader who empowered and educated African Americans. The park’s natural features are on full display when you hike the 4-mile, natural-surface Discovery Trail. The moderate path leads you to the Chucalissa Indian Village, wetlands, forest and more. Spend the night under the stars at one of the 45 campsites in the park that are RV accessible. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table, lantern hanger, fire ring, grill, electrical and water hook-ups. The campground has amenities such as a bathhouse, laundry, picnic shelter and playground.

Stop for a cocktail at The Pocket at Tailor’s Union – Memphis 

Step into the swanky speakeasy, The Pocket at Tailor’s Union for bold cocktails in an elegant atmosphere. The sparkly white bar, seating and chandeliers with pops of color welcome you. Sip on cocktails with basil-infused vodka like the High & Tight with cucumber and elderflower tonic. The smoky Six Brass Buttons mixes mezcal and a bit of serrano for a citrus-flavored drink. The fun and bubbly Silk Sleeves muddles blackberries for a tequila-based drink topped with lemon bubbles and mint.

Dinner at Midtown Crossing – Memphis 

After sampling a few cocktails, head to Midtown Crossing for a laidback, no fuss dinner. Enjoy smoked whole wings, Bahn mi’s or a hummus platter. But, it’s their wide selection of specialty pizzas you won’t want to pass up. The Memphis Mac is smothered with pulled pork and macaroni and cheese while the Herbivore is loaded with veggies like red peppers, pickled eggplant, onions and arugula. Go classic with a margherita pizza or be bold with the Heartburn pizza topped with crumbled bacon, Italian sausage, jalapeno, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. 

Day 2 

Breakfast at Sunrise Memphis 

You’ll want everything on the menu at Sunrise Memphis. Give your day a boost with the Dirty South biscuit sandwich topped with pimento cheese, fried green tomato and the in-house Sunrise sauce. Plates include the decadent banana bread French toast, breakfast tacos stuffed with chorizo, pico de gallo, salsa verde and cotija, and the barbecue chicken omelet with shredded chicken, cheddar cheese, barbecue, onions, onion straws and more. The gravy bowl is a favorite with a biscuit, sausage, scrambled eggs and cheese all covered in sausage gravy. There’s also a vegan bowl full of tofu, spinach, peppers, onions, drizzled with sriracha and scallions. 

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 was murdered, 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.

WDIA Radio 

WDIA Radio is the first radio station in the country programmed entirely for the African American community. The station aired on June 7, 1947, featuring African American radio personalities and brought awareness to a relatively new market of listeners. The station’s influence and popularity reached 10% of the Black population in the U.S. Music legends such as B.B. King and Rufus Thomas got their start by working at WDIA.

Beale Street Historic District 

Created in 1841, Beale Street Historic District is one of the most iconic streets in America. It began as a thriving area for commerce, musicians, Black-owned businesses and was home to Ida B. Wells’ anti-segregationist newspaper. Four District locations are particularly significant to the Civil Rights Movement: Historical Daisy Theatre/Randle Catron Interpretive Center, Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, First Baptist Beale Street Church; and Robert R. Church Park.

Depart for Nashville.

Nashville

Where to stay in Nashville

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, Wifi, plush robes, an in-room pillow menu in case you’d like buckwheat, down or memory foam pillows, large marble bathrooms and more.

Day 3

Breakfast at Shugga Hi Cafe – Nashville 

Shugga Hi Café makes every morning great with breakfast served a variety of ways. The Chicken & Waffles will have you singing with the Shugga Hi Café waffle flavor of the day topped with fried chicken and drizzles with syrup. Savor Da Bomb plate that features two biscuits, eggs, bacon, sausage, cheese and honey butter. The Big Man steak and eggs will satisfy anyone with a meaty rib-eye steak, two eggs and toast. 

Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library 

The Nashville Public Library's Civil Rights Room is a space for education and exploration of the civil rights collection.  You can hear first-hand experiences that detail desegrating public schools, lunch counter sit-ins and more. The collection has photographs, records, manuscripts and more than 100 oral history interviews with civil rights participants. The room is open to the public during regular library hours.

Clark Memorial United Methodist Church

Make your way to 14th Avenue North in downtown Nashville to see Clark Memorial United Methodist Church. It's the oldest black United Methodist Church in Nashville, first established in 1865. The church was a frequent meeting space for the civil rights movement. James Lawson hosted non-violent protest workshops for Nashville college students; and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hosted the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference here.

“Witness Walls” at the Historic Nashville Courthouse 

After the home of Z. Alexander Looby, a lawyer for civil rights cases, was bombed, students and others met with Nashville Mayor Ben West. He agreed segregation was immoral and called for the desegregation of the city's lunch counter. To celebrate this iconic motion, artist Walter Hood designed sculptural concrete walls with period images that show the sitting and marching narratives. You can walk through the concrete walls to see Freedom Rides, economic boycotts, marches and more actions made in Nashville during the Civil Rights Movement. "Witness Walls " was dedicated in 2017 and is a project of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission’s Percent for Public Art Program.

Lunch at Arnold’s Country Kitchen

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.

Fisk University 

Fisk University is the oldest university in Nashville and full of rich history. In 1865, Fisk School was established by three men - John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath and the Reverend Edward P. Smith. The school was incorporated as Fisk University in 1867. The Fisk Jubilee Singers famously introduced the world to spirituals as a musical genre, raising funds for the construction of Jubilee Hall, the South's first permanent structure built for the education of African American students. Many students were the leaders of sit-in demonstrations in Nashville as part of the Civil Rights Movement.

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. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, its history is rich. The hall became the center for non-violent training and civil rights activity, especially the Nashville sit-in program.

Stop for a cocktail at Ph Craft Cocktails & Food – Nashville

pH Craft Cocktails & Food celebrate balance and harmony through specialty cocktails, food, music and atmosphere. Enjoy a cocktail or two like the Pump Up the Jam featuring Nashville-based Corsair Distillery’s vanilla vodka, strawberry, lemon, basil and Aquafaba. The Déjà Vu features Memphis’ Old Dominick Distillery vodka with rhubarb/ginger, peach, orange and pineapple. pH also features classic cocktails like the Sidecar, Manhattan and Toki Highball along with rotating beer and wine selections. 

Dinner at Woolworth on 5th

The site of several 1960s sit-ins in Nashville is reimagined into a restaurant and live music venue, paying homage to Nashville’s civil rights history. The three-story, 30,000-square-foot Woolworth on 5th is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was built in 1930. The building resembles the former Woolworth and its lunch counter. Soul food is served and live music grounded in the 1950s, 1960s, rock n’ roll and soul is performed.

Places in this article

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