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Clayborn Temple, Memphis
Photo Credit: Jeff Adkins/ JCI

Explore the Civil Rights Trail in Tennessee

Learn about the inspiring stories of Americans who fought for racial equality.

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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Learn about the inspiring stories of Americans who fought for racial equality as you follow the new U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which launched in 2018 and includes 10 stops through Memphis, Nashville and Clinton, Tennessee. The whole family can learn something from a day on the trail and have some fun, too.

A good place to begin is Fisk University in Nashville, one of America’s great historically black colleges and universities. The university’s role in the struggle for racial equality is quite notable. Fisk students, with other young men and women from Tennessee State University and Meharry Medical College, were leaders of Nashville’s nonviolent protests and inspired a world-changing social justice movement.

In the heart of downtown Nashville, Woolworth on 5th is now a restored restaurant and live music venue that pays homage to the early days of the civil rights movement. In 1960, it was the site of peaceful sit-ins by African-American students who challenged Woolworth and other stores that did not allow black and white customers to eat at the same counter. While the sit-ins were peaceful, the reactions of some whites were not. This was the site of civil rights hero John Lewis’ first arrest in his lifelong fight for equality.  Currently closed for renovations. 

In the airy, light-filled Civil Rights Room of Nashville’s downtown public library, you’ll find inspiring vintage photographs, documents, media reports and historic memorabilia that tell the story of Nashville’s epic civil rights movement. The painful struggle that included school integration, lunch counter sit-ins, marches and protests finally made Nashville the first integrated city in the South.

The basement of Nashville’s Griggs Hall at American Baptist College became legendary in the 1950s and ’60s. Here, much of the planning and organizing for Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins and other protests was fine-tuned by the likes of now-Congressman John Lewis. It was in Griggs Hall that he famously asked, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

For decades, this historic church building was the center of civil rights planning and organizing in Memphis. Clayborn Temple may be remembered best as the headquarters for the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike – the reason Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis when he was assassinated – that mobilized national sentiment. Currently, it is being restored to its rightful place in the pages of American history. Stop by to see I Am a Man Plaza, a new public space next to the temple.

The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis is the revered site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Established in 1991, the museum preserved the balcony where King was shot and the room in which he stayed, and offers state-of-the-art educational exhibits, multimedia presentations and comprehensive collections that take visitors through five centuries of history. The museum often features special events and speakers, too.

Many of the most dramatic moments in the story of the civil rights movement took place in churches. Some of the most significant sites include Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the night before his assassination. Clark Memorial United Methodist Church has been called “the cradle of the civil rights movement in Nashville.” The gathering place for student activists, it was here they learned about the nonviolence philosophy successful protests.

One morning in August 1956, 12 courageous young black students quietly entered the front door of all-white Clinton High School, making it the first desegregated public high school in the South. The Green McAdoo Cultural Center, on the site of their old segregated school in Clinton, tells the dramatic story of the Clinton 12. A re-created 1950s classroom allows you to relive the students’ experiences of the Jim Crow era, and the life-size, bronze statues of the students in front of the center depict these brave young people on that fateful day.

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