Memphis is known for its great live music and raucous party atmosphere. But in its recent history, as recent as a few decades ago, the civil rights movement and the great battle to overcome inequality and injustice saw many instances where people and places around the city were embroiled in a struggle that was, to put it quite simply, a battle of good versus evil. There were joyous moments of victory and bitter moments of loss, but through it all, these ups and downs would help in composing the triumphant freedom blues that ushered in justice for all Americans. If you’re searching for flights to Memphis to spend a few days in this one-of-a-kind city, then don’t forget to stop by these historic spots that continue to be shining beacons for black history in America.
Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum
The underground railroad was pivotal in bringing to safety African Americans fleeing a life of slavery, and this 19th-century-house-turned-museum also played an important part in this brave plan of escape. The museum is part of the Burkle Estate and is run by Elaine Lee Turner, who along with her sisters were very active members of the civil rights movement, having been arrested numerous times for their many acts of defiance. Visitors can get up close to see the secret doors and dark cellars that once were used to hide escaping slaves and walk around to get a true feel of what it would have been like in this antebellum home during that unforgiving period in history. You can also take a guided tour for more in-depth insight into slavery and the underground railroad.
Location: 826 N. Second St.
National Civil Rights Museum
If history that you can feel, touch, and experience is more your thing, then it doesn’t get grittier than the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The bittersweet significance of this sprawling museum is that it is located at the Lorraine Motel – the place where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot on April 4, 1968. The museum’s various historical artifacts, exhibits, and multimedia presentations come together to provide an eye-opening experience for all visitors, covering slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the civil rights movement, and even current issues.
Location: 450 Mulberry Street
The Withers Collection Museum & Gallery
This little gallery, nestled among the bars and restaurants of Beale Street, showcases some of the key moments of the civil rights struggle featuring poignant portraits of famous leaders and protestors. It also houses great shots of legendary blues, jazz, and soul legends like B.B. King and Aretha Franklin. Photojournalist Dr. Ernest C. Withers captured as many as 1.8 million pictures, which he painstakingly preserved and archived. Withers’ collection transports visitors back in time to where they feel they are actually witnessing the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the iconic protest of Memphis sanitation workers who held the iconic “I Am a Man” placards. There are also numerous pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King that have been captured in more private moments, which could only have been accessed by Withers, as he was a close personal friend of MLK. For lovers of American history and photography, this is a must-visit location when in Memphis.
Location: 333 Beale Street
Beale Street Baptist Church
Built by people who were free from slavery, the First Baptist Church on Beale Street is more than just a place of worship. Over its lifetime, it has served as a place of refuge for those escaping slavery after the Civil War and also functioned briefly as the newspaper office of prominent early civil rights journalist and activist Ida B. Wells (who published one of the first newspapers addressing the needs of the African-American community). The church also went on to be a popular meeting place for those involved in the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties and was later added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
Location: 379 Beale Street
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
As the sound of soul resonated through the fifties and sixties, there is no doubt that the small but significant Stax Records was a powerful catalyst in bringing the genre to the attention of the whole of America. With its roots in the gospel tunes so intertwined with the African-American experience, soul music was the soundtrack to most American youth at the time and was undeniably the soundtrack to the civil rights movement as well. Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes were just a couple of the amazingly talented artists that paid their dues at this legendary Memphis studio, churning out hit after hit that are still revered as classics today. You can enjoy the museum’s impressive wall of records, original recording studio used by artists, and other musical artifacts .. and of course one of the highlights — Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado that has a refrigerated mini-bar, television, and floorboards covered in white fur carpeting!
Location: 333 Beale Street
The Four Way
If all that walking around Memphis has made you hungry, then you’ve come to the perfect place to not only satisfy your hunger, but also your appetite for more black history. This popular soul food diner has been serving up southern treats like fried chicken, turnip greens, and fried tomatoes, but the real main course served up within its walls is its historic role in the civil rights movement; the humble diner acted as an important meeting place for civil rights leaders planning protests and activities in Memphis. In fact, it was one of MLK’s favorite places to meet over a soul food fiesta. The diner was also a favorite lunch spot for artists at Stax Records (just a block away) like Aretha Franklin and B.B. King. So go ahead, find a table, and sit right down and enjoy a delicious feast. Who knows? You might just be sitting in the same spot as some of the most important activists and entertainers of the last century!
Location: 998 Mississippi Boulevard
If learning all about the civil rights movement as well as black history and culture while visiting a vibrant city is definitely on your bucket list, then search out some cheap flights to Memphis, and start your insightful, reflective, and educational journey right away.
Have you visited any of these locations? Share your experiences with us in the comments.