Thanks to the 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 14 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. Download the brochure or get the digital passport below:
Start your journey at the Clayborn Temple in Memphis. Clayborn Temple’s ties to the Civil Rights movement reached a pinnacle in 1968 when it became headquarters for the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Starting in February 1968, nearly 1,000 sanitation workers marched twice daily from the church to City Hall carrying signs declaring “I AM A MAN.” In the evenings, strikers, their families, and supporters filled the sanctuary for inspirational speeches. Tours are available by appointment. Located next to Clayborn Temple, the I AM A MAN Plaza features a sculpture alongside a wall filled with the names of those who participated and rallied in the historic 1968 Memphis sanitation strikes.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech on the eve of his assassination – April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. 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.
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. Though currently not in use, visit the historic WDIA building in downtown Memphis, see the WDIA neon marquee, and stand outside the original entrance where this famed station first began broadcasting.
Created in 1841, Beale Street 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.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located on the original site of Stax Records studio since 2003 and now a Tennessee stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, pays special tribute to the artists who recorded there, as well as other American soul legends. Many of the artists and musicians who recorded at Stax were from the surrounding neighborhood, local churches and schools. In a time when racial tension was high, the studio was integrated from day one, focusing on producing its own sound, a Memphis sound. Stax launched its second annual Virtual Black History Month Tour, which is available at no cost to educators and students throughout the world.
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.
In the heart of downtown Nashville, Woolworth Theatre 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.
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 and U.S. Representative John Lewis. Thurgood Marshall (the first African-American Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) was among the early participants in Charles S. Johnson's famous Race Relations Institute at Fisk. 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.
The National Museum of African American Music is now a stop on the Tennessee portion of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. The museum is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the many music genres created, influenced and inspired by African Americans. The “One Nation Under a Groove” gallery is focused on how music inspired the Civil Rights Movement and evolved with the issues of the day. Educational programs, programming and events spotlight the achievements and influences of African American music.
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:
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.