Lee Sentell has had a storied career as the director of the Alabama Tourism Department. His passion for his profession and personal experience growing up during the civil rights movement prompted him to spearhead the Civil Rights Trail, a cultural initiative that encompasses sites across the United States that were influential in the civil rights movement.
Asked how the project was initiated, Sentell commented, “When President Obama was leaving office, he told the National Parks director he wanted more diversity in terms of National Parks and World Heritage Sites. I got to know the director during the run-up to the Selma 50th anniversary and our office took this on as a project.” With Alabama the epicenter of many civil rights sites, Sentell had a front-row seat—his office sits just one block from Martin Luther King Jr.’s church.
To catalog sites, Sentell initiated the support of Georgia State University, something that had never been done before. “We started out with about 60 sites and came up with another 50,” said Sentell. There are currently 125 sites across the trail, the majority of which are accessible to motorcoaches.
While initially encompassing 12 Southern states, the trail now extends as far north as Delaware and as far west as Topeka, with the largest concentration of sites in Alabama.
Remarkably, many of the sites along the trail have been preserved. “For better or worse, most of the places where civil rights events took place were in poorer parts of town and those places have not been bulldozed; they are still there,” said Sentell. Additionally, some sites have added interpretive guides to help guests better understand the significance of the events that occurred there.
The Civil Rights Trail has built a comprehensive website that catalogs destinations along the trail and has grown in size and stature ever since. Sentell attributes much of the success to being at the right place at the right time.
Sentell’s work has led to the creation of a book, Civil Rights Trail, a 14-chapter chronicle of 14 cities that, as he says, “tells the story of why what happened there mattered.” The book will be available this spring.