From the 1940s to the 1960s, restaurants in the South became high-profile focal points for the Civil Rights Movement because activists understood the powerful effect that desegregating White-owned eateries would have on the public's imagination. After all, restaurants are places where people from different walks of life gather for nourishment, social interaction, and an opportunity to belong to a community. These things go to the heart of what it means to be American.
Segregationists were heavily invested in preventing interracial dining from becoming a widespread reality because it spoke to something even deeper: When people sit down together for a meal, they can't help but recognize the humanity of those eating with them. In addition, when people prepare food for you, they are letting you know that they care for your survival. In essence, cooking is an act of love.
African American eateries throughout the South gave life to the Civil Rights Movement in ways both seen and unseen. Black culinary entrepreneurs realized the beauty of a simple truth: People power movements, and food powers people. During the Jim Crow era, Black restaurants were part heaven and part haven—places where African Americans could get a taste of the good life as well as the basic rights denied them at White establishments.
Black-owned restaurants exemplified what it meant to be a community resource by feeding civil rights workers (often for free), offering a safe space for organizers and strategists to meet, and providing additional support. Here's our short list of those that you shouldn't miss when traveling through the South.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Our tears haven't dried since Leah Chase died in June 2019. Leah was the matriarch and the driving force behind the restaurant that she operated with her husband Edgar "Dooky" Chase Jr., who died in 2016. Dooky Chase's offered its customers a fine-dining experience among all the White-owned establishments in the city's celebrated French Quarter. Yet the Chases were always very community minded. The Congress of Racial Equality planned for New Orleans to be the final destination for the first Freedom Ride that departed from Washington, D.C., in early May 1961. The Freedom Riders were an interracial group of men and women who rode by bus through the South to test compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated interstate travel. But the trip was so marred by violence from White protesters that the bus ride was halted in Jackson, Mississippi.
The Freedom Riders eventually flew to New Orleans to complete the trip. Dooky Chase's Restaurant planned to host a banquet in their honor, continuing a long tradition of supporting civil rights workers. While we don't know what they would have served them that day, we'd like to think it would have been the Creole gumbo and the fried chicken that still grace the menu.
If you happen to be in New Orleans on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter), be sure to order their gumbo z'herbes, which features a medley of dark leafy greens as well as various types of smoked meats.
It's hard to know whether, back in 1947, James and Robert Paschal knew their sandwich shop (funded by pooling their savings from jobs like delivering newspapers and shining shoes) would leave such an important legacy. Yet because it was situated in Atlanta, the city where most key civil rights leaders were based, no soul food restaurant is more closely identified with the movement and its leadership.
After the business expanded to be Paschal's Motor Hotel and Restaurant, the spot became the unofficial headquarters for civil rights organizers who were drawn in by the good food, especially the fried chicken, and the meeting spaces that were offered there. Ebony magazine noted in a 1979 profile of the Paschal brothers: "It was also at Paschal's, in room 501 [of the hotel], that many, if not most of the civil rights marches were planned." The Paschals also gave free food to protesters who had been arrested, jailed, and made bail.
Now in a downtown location, Paschal's operates solely as a restaurant and no longer as a motel. As they have since the eatery first opened, customers come for the classic fried chicken, but there are other tempting menu items too. We also love their baked salmon and their storied peach cobbler.
Montgomery emerged as one of the Civil Rights Movement's pivotal venues when Rosa Parks, a city resident and secretary of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), refused to give up her seat on a bus to a White man in early December 1955. Four days after her arrest, local Black residents launched the famous bus boycott that stretched until the city's bus lines were desegregated in December 1956. Given the intense opposition mounted by Montgomery's White citizens, the logistical achievement of the boycott should not be downplayed.
Nearing eight decades in business, Brenda's is Montgomery's oldest Black-owned barbecue restaurant. Jereline and Larry James Bethune first opened the Siesta Club in 1942 but (within a few years) converted that location to serve 'cue. Brenda's support for the Civil Rights Movement runs deep in its DNA and went beyond mere sustenance. Larry Bethune shared in an interview with The Washington Post that the restaurant provided resources to local NAACP organizers by printing event flyers and offering meeting space, in addition to feeding them. People come in droves to the tiny brick structure in West Montgomery for their barbecued chicken, but we recommend you give the pig ears a try.
In 1944, Bertha and Lacey C. Wilson Sr. opened a food stand on the corner of Florida Avenue and 11th Street in the northwest section of Washington, D.C. They named it the Florida Avenue Grill, and it's now the world's oldest continuously operating soul food restaurant. It isn't a big place and feels like a shotgun house with tables and booths on one side and a long counter facing an open kitchen on the other. Though White customers have flocked to the restaurant since its earliest days, civil rights leaders still felt comfortable meeting there.
When you visit, ask to be seated in the booth where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ate and strategized before the 1963 March on Washington. We don't know what King had for his meal, but we recommend the Fish & Grits Breakfast with grits, eggs the way you like them, and plump croaker or salmon cakes as well as fried catfish. For your choice of bread, get their legendary corn muffins—crispy on the outside but pillowy soft on the inside. The menu also has a few surprises. The current owner, Imar Hutchins (who purchased the Florida Avenue Grill from the Wilson family in 2005), follows a plant-based diet, so things like vegetarian sausage were added to the menu. In a city that's still marked by the impact of segregation and overrun with gentrification, the Florida Avenue Grill stays true to its founders' legacies and remains a diverse gathering spot.
In the latter years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, Memphis became the epicenter of his economic-justice agenda. The Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968 was a good example of the new and still nonviolent direction his work had taken from civil rights to the struggles of working-class people. The Four Way Grill, which Irene and Clint Cleaves opened in 1946 in South Memphis, also functioned as an unofficial office for many of the local leaders. In its earliest days, it served as a combination restaurant, pool hall, and barbershop. When King ate there during its heyday, he reportedly loved the fried catfish and chicken as well as the peach cobbler.
King's assassination on April 4, 1968, didn't end the restaurant's connection to the movement. The Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles was also an active local leader. He was King's friend and was one of the last people to see him alive at the Lorraine Motel. Kyles still came to the restaurant for years afterward, and people felt connected to the movement there.
Clint died in the early 1970s, and Irene died in 1998. The restaurant went through some rough times, including a temporary closure, before Willie Earl Bates and Jo Ellen Bates bought the restaurant in 2001. They renamed it The Four Way to indicate the changed ownership. It has remained in the Bates family ever since, with their daughter, Patrice Bates Thompson, now running it after her father's and mother's deaths in 2016 and 2019, respectively.
In a city overflowing with options, Memphis locals still put The Four Way on their list of favorite soul food places. Some of the most popular items on the menu are the fried catfish, turkey with dressing, fried chicken, and spaghetti with a very meaty marinara sauce.