Even freedom fighters need to eat.
You have to admit, a platter of crispy fried chicken, buttery biscuits, and peach cobbler is one of the greatest things to come out of the South. There’s something heart-warming about this homegrown comfort food that nourishes the heart and soul. So maybe it’s no coincidence that some of the greatest plans and strategies throughout the Civil Rights Movement were concocted over humble tables in buzzing restaurants—places that, at a time of fear and violence, provided safe refuge, sometimes behind locked doors. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had his favorites, as did John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer and all of the movement’s other icons and foot soldiers. Many of these restaurants remain open to this day, their legacies far exceeding that of mouth-watering, homestyle cooking. Here are some of the most notable.
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Lannie’s BBQ Spot
WHERE: Selma, Alabama
Lannie’s has been serving BBQ in Selma’s historically Black Tuxedo Park neighborhood since 1942 when the late Lannie and Will Travis began smoking hogs in a cinder-block pit next to their home. During Selma’s hotbed of civil rights activity in the sixties, Lannie’s served barbecue sandwiches to Black activists staying in the neighborhood, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. But customers of all races were always welcome, and the restaurant continues to thrive beneath the caring hands of the third generation, both for its heaping plates of food as well as a buzzy community center. Don’t leave without trying the smoked pulled pork topped with crackling (fried pig skin).
Ben’s Chili Bowl
WHERE: Washington, D.C.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., often visited this famous half-smoke restaurant on the U Street corridor, and co-owner Virginia Ali enjoyed discussing the dream of equality for all. She and Ben Ali opened Ben’s in 1958; he died in 2009, but she still stops by nearly every day. The Bowl has always been part of the community. During the 1963 March on Washington, they donated food to volunteers. When MLK was assassinated in 1968, the restaurant received special permission to stay open after curfew to serve and shelter police officers, protestors, firefighters, and the National Guard as they worked to restore order amid a neighborhood lying in shambles. But wait, what’s a half-smoke? It’s D.C.’s trademark smoked, spicy pork-and-beef sauce, smothered in chili and served on a little paper plate.
WHERE: Montgomery, Alabama
Chris’ Hotdogs has served hotdogs doused in its famous chili sauce (only three living people know its secret) and topped with mustard, onions, and kraut since 1917. This Montgomery icon was one of the few white-owned restaurants that ignored segregation laws, feeding customers equally. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used to drop by for a hotdog and morning newspaper (some say he slipped in through the back door). On Dexter Street, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, and MLK accepted his call to ministry at the then-Dexter Street Memorial Baptist Church. And while hotdogs are its mainstay, you can also order hamburgers, chicken salad, chili, and chicken fingers, all made fresh daily.
WHERE: Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., held meetings upstairs at Paschal’s while eating from a menu that includes sandwiches and baskets of fried chicken. The 1963 March on Washington was organized here over soulful specialties, with diners including John Lewis and Jesse Jackson. The owners, James and Robert Paschal, often posted bail for protestors and marchers. The two brothers opened the restaurant in 1947 in the Castleberry Hill Arts District, specializing in fried chicken prepared with Robert’s “secret sauce.” That was after James started his career with a shoeshine stand as a boy, going on to establish a meat market/grocery store/entertainment venue as a teenager, a catering business, a motor hotel (where African-Americans could safely stay), and more. The original location closed in 2000 and moved to the city’s Northside—and this year, they’re celebrating 75 years. But one thing remains the same: The fried chicken still tastes amazing!
WHERE: Memphis, Tennessee
Martin Luther King, Jr., knew the Arcade on S. Main Street as a 24-hour diner, and he probably ate here when in town since he stayed at the hotel across the street. The night he was assassinated in April 1968, the owner, Harry Zepatos, had to quickly find a locksmith to lock the doors so they could close during the pursuing riots. The police asked them to reopen because they had nowhere else to eat. Zepatos’s father, Speros Zepatos, founded the restaurant in 1919 after arriving from Greece, and today it’s run by third-generation Jeff Zepatos, claiming to be Memphis’s oldest restaurant. You’ll find the best of southern fare, including breakfast all day—and you may spy something else on the menu: fried peanut butter and banana sandwich (bacon optional), which Elvis used to eat in his special spot by the back door.
The Four Way
WHERE: Memphis, Tennessee
Whenever Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., traveled through Memphis, he stopped by the Four Way for a fix of Irene Cleave’s fried catfish and tangy lemon meringue—and to meet with local activists, including Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles. Meetings took place in the backroom, where admittance occurred after a ringing a bell (today, the door is still there, but the kitchen has expanded into the dining room). This civil rights institution remains in the heart of Soulsville, harking back to the global soul music explosion that erupted here in the 1950s (artists recording at the nearby Stax Records dined here regularly as well). As always, the traditional meal is the “meat and three”—your choice of meat with three veggies, served cafeteria-style.
Big Apple Inn
WHERE: Jackson, Mississippi
Back in the ’60, when Farish Street was a hub of Black-owned businesses, iconic civil rights leader Medgar Evers rented offices above this tiny, wood-paneled restaurant. His NAACP meetings often spilled over into the restaurant, its attendees likely eating pig-ear sandwiches and smokes. He also organized protests here, including the 1961 Freedom Rides. Big Apple started in 1939, when Juan “Big John” Mora, a Mexican who started selling tamales from a cart, rented a brick-and-mortar restaurant that he named after a popular dance. Mora’s son, Harold Lee, married a local African-American woman, Mae-Mama, and Big Apple remains one of the few (if only) places whose menu includes hot tamales and pig ears.
Florida Avenue Grill
WHERE: Washington, D.C.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. strategized the 1963 March on Washington at the Florida Avenue Grill, which claims to be the world’s oldest continuously operating soul food restaurant. It barely survived the riots that erupted after his assassination in 1968, thanks largely to its owner, Lacey C. Wilson, Sr., who stood guard with his shotgun at the front door. Wilson opened the grill in 1944, in the midst of segregated D.C., with the dream of creating a place where people of different races, social standings, and religions could enjoy a meal together. Back then, he and his wife, Bertha, cooked in the basement. Their son, Lacey Wilson, Jr., bought a majority interest in 1970 and went on to purchase adjacent lots. And though he sold the restaurant in 2005, it remains standing almost exactly as it was, full of memories—though don’t be alarmed to see the odd salad and vegan sausage patty appearing on the menu amid the pancakes, half-smokes, chitterlings, and peach cobbler.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant
WHERE: New Orleans, Louisiana
Freedom Riders were headed for this New Orleans institution before being sidetracked by white anti-civil rights groups in Jackson, Mississippi, halting the ride. The Freedom Riders then flew to New Orleans, and a banquet was hosted in their honor. That’s just one story of the multitudes of white and Black civil rights workers who have gathered at Dooky Chase’s to organize and dialogue—and eat gumbo—in the upstairs dining room, at a time when interracial meetings were illegal. It all started in 1941 when Emily and Dooky Chase, Sr., opened a barroom and sandwich shop, which morphed into a Creole restaurant with sit-down dining amid African-American art—one of the country’s first African-American fine-dining restaurants. The restaurant remains Chase-family-owned, and it still serves up some of the best gumbo and fried chicken around.
Brenda's Bar-B-Que Pit
WHERE: Montgomery, Alabama
Jereline Bethune established Brenda’s with her husband, Larry James, in 1942. After he died in 1956, she kept the restaurant running alone. She became involved in the Civil Rights Movement during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956, and Brenda’s became a gathering place for organizers. They ran printing machines to make fliers announcing different meetings, hiding their activities from the local KKK. She also held secret meetings in the back of the restaurant, where she taught Black people how to read and write so they could pass literacy tests—and vote. Today, the restaurant, reigning as Montgomery’s oldest Black-owned barbecue restaurant, is run by Jereline’s son and granddaughter, who still receive much love for their barbecue chicken. The pig ears are worth a try, too. As always, order at the window and take it away.