In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed thousands of nonviolent demonstrators who had gathered in Selma, Alabama, to march for equal rights for African Americans. The story of what happened there has become well known, and the town of Selma itself has become a symbol of the American civil rights movement.

Lee Sentell was a college student in Alabama in 1965 and heard King speak at the Selma march. Today, Sentell is the director of the Alabama Tourism Department and is spearheading a 13-state effort to bring the story of American civil rights to people around the world.

People marching on bridge (Anonymous/AP Images)
In 1975, Coretta Scott King (center), widow of Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis (today a congressman), cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday” because police beat Lewis and other peaceful protesters. (Anonymous/AP Images)

The initiative allows people to tread the same paths that civil rights heroes did, to experience the fight for American civil rights without leaving their screens. The website uses 360-degree videos, historical comparison photos, interviews and interactive maps to guide visitors to physical sites across the southern United States.

“We wanted to give people one location where they can get information on the major American civil rights landmarks,” Sentell said. “Activists overcame government-sponsored segregation in this country, and what they did inspired people all over the world.”

People standing across the street from a building (Anonymous/AP Images)
A state trooper stands guard in 1963 at a roadblock at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church was the site of a racially motivated bombing that killed four black girls. (Anonymous/AP Images)

The trail begins with the site of school integration in Topeka, Kansas, goes through marches in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, to the Supreme Court in Washington, where historic legal precedents were set, including the desegregation of schools in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

“The website … gives the opportunity for people to hear stories from people who were involved in the movement,” said Liz Bittner, president of TravelSouth USA, the collective marketing organization that launched the trail. “Hearing their stories and understanding their experiences plays a key role in understanding the movement and its impact on the rest of the world.”

Sign reading 'Lorraine Motel' and buildings (© Adrian Sainz/AP Images)
The exterior of the old Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on a balcony at this motel in 1968. (© Adrian Sainz/AP Images)

The trail includes 110 museums, courthouses, churches and memorials that were pivotal in the civil rights movement, connected by the trail’s theme “What happened here changed the world.” People can explore by state or issue and through a timeline.

A global story

The origins of the Civil Rights Trail stem from a project to document surviving civil rights landmarks and find potential sites to nominate to the World Heritage list. Research conducted by historians at Georgia State University in Atlanta located 60 sites, creating the first inventory of civil rights landmarks.

Children sitting at desks in school classroom (© Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Students in the Ruby Bridges room of the Akili Academy in New Orleans. The room is named for the first black student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. (© Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post/Getty Images)

“The story that the trail tells is very much a global story,” said Glenn Eskew, director of the World Heritage Initiative at Georgia State University. “It’s a message of standing up against wrong to reform society for the better, to create a more equitable world where people are treated equally and fairly in the name of human rights.”

This article was written by freelance writer Maeve Allsup.