By Michael Sznajderman
Lee Sentell was in college when he personally heard the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It was during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, on the night before King delivered his famous “How Long? Not Long” speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.
King spoke to rain-soaked marchers camped on the edge of Montgomery at the City of St. Jude, a Catholic education, health care and spiritual complex devoted to the Black community.
A student at Auburn University in 1965 and a staffer for the campus newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman, Sentell had come to Montgomery – not so much for the march, but to hear the evening of entertainment scheduled for that night outside St. Jude. Organized by popular recording artist, actor and activist Harry Belafonte, the Stars for Freedom Rally featured a stunning array of performers and celebrities, including Sammy Davis Jr., Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Leonard Bernstein and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Sentell was particularly interested in Simone and whether she’d perform her controversial civil rights ballad, Mississippi Goddam, a song inspired by the murder in 1963 of four Black girls in Birmingham during a Sunday morning Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
That night, and King’s words of inspiration to the weary marchers, stayed with Sentell. Decades later, as Alabama’s state tourism director, it inspired him to take a state list of African American heritage sites and create the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, featuring more than 40 locations that played a role in the struggle for equal rights for Blacks.
Tragedy And Triumph
In 2017, Sentell and the Alabama tourism office worked with other state travel offices across the South on an even bigger idea: to develop the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, highlighting more than 100 locations across 15 states, mainly in the South and Midwest. The trail traces the decades-long journey – beginning in the mid-20th century – that resulted in tragedy and triumph and culminated in landmark federal civil rights legislation.
Through the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, visitors can explore – physically or virtually – sites by individual states. Or they can travel the history chronologically: from the segregated school in Topeka, Kansas, that sparked the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down “separate but equal” facilities for Blacks and whites; to Montgomery, where in 1955 seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person; to Memphis, where King was struck down in 1968 by an assassin’s bullet while standing on a motel balcony.
Now, there’s another option for those interested in exploring the U.S. Civil Rights Trail: a full-color, hardcover companion book that takes readers along the 30-year timeline marking the most important moments of the modern civil rights movement. Sentell authored the book, with primary editing credits going to Georgia State University (GSU) professor Glenn Eskew, a distinguished civil rights historian and author of the highly acclaimed “But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle,” among other books.
“You can’t tell the history of the South without talking about the Civil War, the Confederacy and the civil rights movement,” Sentell said in a recent interview with Alabama NewsCenter.
“I like the fact that people in other states are reading this – to see what happened in Alabama.”
Indeed, a glance at the book’s map, which pinpoints important civil rights sites across the country, shows how important events in Alabama were in achieving major legislative and legal victories of the movement. Those victories include: the military’s decision in 1941 to allow the training of Black pilots for World War II at Tuskegee University; the 1956 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racially segregated buses, triggered by the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which followed Birmingham’s “Children’s Crusade” and the horrific Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing; and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which followed the “Bloody Sunday” attack on voting rights activists in Selma and the subsequent Selma-to-Montgomery march.
The book’s cover photo, in fact, points to Selma: It is a bucolic, sunset portrait of the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, a stark contrast to an image inside that shows the vicious beating endured by civil rights activists as they crossed that same bridge nearly 60 years ago. One of the victims was 25-year-old civil rights leader and Alabama native John Lewis, later a congressman from Georgia. The photo shows Lewis being clubbed to the ground by a state trooper. On the last page of the book there’s another photo of Lewis, with Sentell and other dignitaries, unveiling a historic plaque honoring the congressman. The plaque is outside the public library in Troy, where Lewis, who died in 2020, was refused a library card as a young boy.
Creative use of photography is one of its most compelling features of the book. Combining historic and contemporary snapshots of civil rights sites – in some cases expertly blending them into fresh, then-and-now images – the book offers a striking and evocative tableau of some of the most historic moments in the civil rights struggle.
Sentell’s crisp writing – he worked as a journalist as a young man – not only tells the stories behind each site; he also provides historical context about each location or event, sketching out the bigger role each played in the ongoing journey toward equal rights.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail, and the companion book, owe their creation to others in Alabama, as well. The book’s design, as well as the U.S. Civil Rights Trail website, were crafted by Birmingham-based agency Luckie & Co. And the book was published by Alabama Media Group, the organization behind al.com, The Birmingham News, Huntsville Times, Press-Register in Mobile and other platforms.
Meanwhile, another even bigger project has a tie to Alabama and the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. During his second term, President Barack Obama instructed the National Park Service to seek opportunities for the United States to add greater diversity to the list of World Heritage Sites approved by UNESCO. At Alabama’s request, a GSU team led by Eskew identified 60 civil rights landmarks as potential UNESCO candidates. Sentell said a formal proposal to UNESCO to make the sites a “serial” World Heritage attraction is expected to be submitted to officials in Paris within two years.
Sentell said Alabamians should be proud of the role the state’s people and places played in advancing human rights, noting that global travel organizations, such as Trafalgar and Smithsonian Journeys, are booking tours to Alabama civil rights sites. Parade magazine, in its July 16 issue, featured Alabama sites on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail as one of 10 U.S. “Don’t-Miss Destinations” for travel this summer.
The interest underscores how Alabama’s part of the civil rights story is being recognized, and the need for that story to continue to be taught to new generations.
“It is important to be reminded of the amazing courage and bravery it took,” Sentell said, from the adults who refused to ride on segregated buses in Montgomery, to the activists beaten in Selma, to the teenagers who faced snapping dogs and high-powered firehoses in Birmingham. And to honor those who were killed in the struggle for civil rights.
“People literally put their livelihoods, and their lives, on the line,” Sentell said.
Signings for the new U.S. Civil Rights Trail book are scheduled with Sentell at the Books-A-Million stores in Montgomery on Aug. 19 and Trussville on Aug. 20.