10 Destinations to Visit on the Tennessee Civil Rights Trail

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Introduced during National Black History Month in February 2018, the Tennessee portion of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail spotlights churches, schools and other landmarks that played an important role in the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. Ten sites in Memphis, Nashville and Clinton tell the stories of the courageous men and women who peacefully protested, brought legal actions and risked their lives to bring about change. To learn more about this turbulent and transformative era in Tennessee, check out the Black History Month activities throughout the state.

See more: MLK’s Legacy Lives at Civil Rights Museum

Memphis: Following in the Footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr.

Start your journey in Memphis at Clayborn Temple, where organizers held numerous meetings during the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often delivered his inspiring speeches. In February 1968, it became headquarters for the city’s Sanitation Workers’ Strike; nearly 1,000 sanitation employees marched daily from the church to city hall carrying signs that read, “I Am a Man.”

At the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, King gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech the night before his assassination, vowing that “we as a people will get to the promised land.”

Tennessee Civil Rights Trail

Historic Church of God in Christ Mason Temple in Memphis; Photo by Jeff Adkins.

A Memphis must-see is the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where King lost his life on April 3, 1968. Both the balcony where he was killed and Room 306, where he stayed the night before, have been preserved. Listed in the Negro Travelers’ Green Book depicted in the 2018 movie Green Book, in the 1950s and ’60s the motel was a popular gathering spot for African American recording artists and now houses a stunning collection of videos, text, images and multimedia presentations commemorating the period.

Tennessee Civil Rights Trail; Lorraine Motel

The Lorraine Hotel houses the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee; Photo by Jeff Adkins

“It’s important for the National Civil Rights Museum to be a part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, especially because of the history that happened here,” says Faith Morris, the museum’s chief marketing and external affairs officer. “But we go beyond the assassination to encourage visitors to learn about the full story of the civil rights movement.”

See more: Why You Should Visit the Memphis Cotton Museum

Nashville: From Woolworth to the Witness Walls

Moving on to Middle Tennessee, the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library honors the thousands of city residents who led peaceful protests against racial inequality. “Very few people realize that in addition to the physical space, there is an astounding collection of oral history that has been gathered, some [of it] digitized, over 220 firsthand accounts of people who participated in the sit-ins, and Freedom Riders who were instrumental in school desegregation here in Nashville,” says Andrea Blackman, division manager of the Special Collections Department at the library. “We have all these training manuals on how to practice nonviolence and buttons that actually say ‘Keep Our Schools White.’ Those are some of the amazing gems that are in that space.”

Tennessee Civil Rights Trail; Woolworth on 5th

Photo by Jeff Adkins

Downtown Nashville is home to Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, a brick house of worship that hosted protest workshops as well as King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961. Head next to the Davidson County Courthouse, where, in 1960, 2,500 students and others convinced the mayor that segregation was immoral and that the city’s lunch counters should welcome people of color. Next door, the Witness Walls show images of local events and people who made civil rights history.

Another place to immerse yourself in the era is Woolworth on 5th, where several sit-ins unfolded at the five-and-dime’s lunch counter. Restored to resemble the original space, it is now a soul-food restaurant and live music venue.

Founded in 1866, the historically black Fisk University is Nashville’s oldest university and the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice, and U.S. Representative John Lewis. Be sure to check out Fisk Memorial Chapel, along with the Race Relations Institute, a forum born 20 years before the first student sit-ins.

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel; Photo by Jeff Adkins

Before moving eastward along the Trail, reserve a tour time at Griggs Hall at American Baptist College, a vital center for nonviolent training and activity in Nashville in the 1960s.

See more: 4 Ways to Experience History at the Tennessee State Museum

Clinton: Standing Strong for Equal Education

The Tennessee segment of the Civil Rights Trail ends in the quiet town of Clinton at the Clinton 12 Statue and Green McAdoo Cultural Center in the community’s former segregated elementary school for African American children. Bronze statues of the 12 black students who enrolled at Clinton High School, the first to integrate in the South despite white supremacist violence, stand at the entrance. Inside, visitors can see what life was like under Jim Crow laws in a 1950s classroom and learn about the Clinton 12 through life-size photographs and interactive narratives.

“The one thing I hope every visitor takes away from the museum is that even when things are hard, courage and determination can achieve great things,” says Marilyn Hayden, the center’s director. “These were 12 students just wanting to attend school and they paved the way for others by walking through the protestors to enter Clinton High School in 1956.”

And, as Blackman points out, conversations about history, human rights and contemporary civil rights issues are still underway. “What is the next civil rights issue of our area and what are we doing about it to create a more just and civil society?” she says. “It’s important people understand it didn’t just happen and go away. It’s an ongoing effort.”

To learn more, visit tncivilrightstrail.com.

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