Soul food eatery fed bellies, souls of civil rights movement
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When Irene and Clint Cleaves opened The Four Way Grill in 1946, they couldn’t have known that the tiny restaurant attached to a pool hall and a barber shop would become an institution in the civil rights movement 20 years later.
They wouldn’t have known that a teenager in Atlanta would become a man who would change a nation, that they would foster the community he led, that they would feed him just as he fed the souls of men and women fighting for justice and equal rights.
But The Four Way’s place in history is sealed to Martin Luther King Jr., the man who loved Irene Cleave’s fried catfish, fried chicken and her peach cobbler. Just as other soul food restaurants across the country, particularly in the South, offered a safe place for activists to talk, so went The Four Way.
“In the black community, the soul food restaurants and the churches were the prime places for people to meet and organize,” said Adrian Miller, an author whose 2013 book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship.
King was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a day after he came to town in support of the sanitation workers on strike. There’s no record of him eating at The Four Way on that visit, but folks who still eat in the restaurant today will never forget those two days.
Joyce Walton Lindsey, 73, was a student at the time, working on her master’s degree. On April 3 she went with friends to hear Dr. King speak at Mason Temple, but he wasn’t there. Instead, she said, she recalls it was Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson and James Bevel.
“In the church we began to chant ‘Dr. King, Dr. King,’ so they went and got him,” she said.
King was resting, but he came to speak. Lindsey said when he started, he appeared subdued, even nervous.
“In the midst of him speaking, it was like a spirit came up over him to let him know ‘You’re gonna be all right,’ and this is when he began to really speak,” she said. “And he let us know that he feared no man and that he had been to the mountaintop and he had looked out over the mountaintop. He said, ‘I may not get there with you.’”
Last week, as she’s done for most of her life, Lindsey was eating at The Four Way, coincidentally at the same time as a group of ministers who meet there weekly. Among them was Edward Parker, the minister of Berean Missionary Baptist Church. Almost 80, he remembers The Four Way not just as a place for meeting during the civil rights movement, but also as a part of his history.
The room in back, where you had to ring a bell to be admitted, was where it all took place. Today you can see the door, but it opens into an expanded kitchen instead of a dining room with white tablecloths.
“The Four Way was also a place for socializing,” he said. “This was a plush restaurant. It was exquisite. It had the best of everything. It was where you would bring your best girl.”
But it was more than that, too.
“We would come in the evening and have a beer or a Coke and sit and discuss the affairs and the situation of the day,” he said.
And sometimes, plans would be laid.
“From time to time, (the Rev. Samuel) Billy (Kyles) would come in and share. He was such a mover in the civil rights movement.”
The late Kyles was Dr. King’s friend, the man who arrived at the Lorraine Motel on April 4 to take him to dinner at his home. Exactly 10 minutes minutes after he arrived, according to a timeline in a 2013 article by The Commercial Appeal reporter Marc Perrusquia, Dr. King was shot on the balcony of the motel.
Clint Cleaves died in 1970; his wife lived until 1998 but her restaurant foundered as her health declined. It closed in 1996 for nonpayment of taxes, prompting then-Memphis Mayor W. W. Herenton to attempt an intervention to save it with a $20,000 loan. It didn’t happen, but the restaurant reopened, only to close again. In 2001, Willie Bates and a partner bought it on the courthouse steps. Bates died in 2016; the restaurant is now owned and run by his daughter, Patrice Bates Thompson.
Bates, who worked for Universal Life Insurance Co., grew up four blocks from The Four Way. The red wagon he used to carry copies of The Commercial Appeal when he started his paper route at age 9 sits outside the restaurant.
“After he retired he started to pursue a side business in real estate,” Thompson said. “So he bought the real estate without saying that he was going to open the restaurant, but I think he always knew he was.”
He saw LeMoyne Gardens, the apartments where he grew up, razed to make way for a new development.
“I think that sealed it for him,” Thompson said. “He wanted to preserve his neighborhood.”
People told him to move the restaurant, but Bates told this reporter in 2015 that he laughed at anyone who told him to do that, that there was no point in having The Four Way if it wasn’t in the original location. He knew he could get someone to cook the food anywhere, but the ground was where the magic was.
Dr. King is the dignitary most associated with the restaurant, but in 2011, when The Four Way was recognized on its 65th anniversary, Bates said: “Elvis Presley ate here, too. And B. B. King and even Don King. We like to say we’ve had all the kings.”
Albert King, too, Thompson points out, and Martin Luther King III, listing a roster of other celebrities, activists and politicians who have been in over the years. The proximity to Stax made it a natural for some of them; others sought it specifically for the food or to sit in the storied walls.
There’s Aretha Franklin. Isaac Hayes. Jesse Jackson. Rosa Parks. Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Steve Harvey, Alex Haley. City and county mayors.
“Drake did part of a video in here,” she said. “And Obama was scheduled to come when he was in town to speak at Booker T. Washington but he wasn’t able to make it.”
As far as civil rights workers and activists, it wasn’t just Dr. King.
“As I’ve heard it, many days people would work all day, march and it would be late in the night before they could eat, but Mrs. Cleaves would open up and cook a meal for them,” she said.
While 1946 is the recorded date of when The Four Way opened — there was originally a “Grill” attached to the end of the name, which was changed for legal reasons when Bates bought it — Bates said in 2011 that he believes it was open before then. Even in 1946, it makes it one of the oldest soul food restaurants in the country.
The Florida Avenue Grill in Washington, D.C., opened in 1944 and has never closed.
“As far as I can tell, it’s the oldest soul food restaurant continuously operating in the country,” Miller said.
He points out that opening a soul food restaurant in segregated days held particular appeal.
“An African-American restaurant was one of the few places an African-American owner could excel in business without white interference,” he said.
Thompson said it’s hard work, but she’s proud of the restaurant, her father, and to be carrying on the legacy.
“We get people from all over the world,” she said. “I have a guest book and you’ll see people from Arkansas and Mississippi and then people from France, Greece, Germany. We were on the Travel Channel and last year on Showtime, when Navy came to town to play Memphis. My son plays for Navy and Showtime had that show, ‘A Season with Navy Football.’ We were on episode 6.
“Of course we have a lot of regulars, and I don’t forget how it started. It was a special place for our people to go.”