Bringing Civil Rights History to Life

Bringing Civil Rights History to Life

Feb 21st, 2018

On March 7, 1965, 600 peaceful civil rights demonstrators prepared to march from Selma to Montgomery, championing the Selma Voting Rights Movement. As they moved south across the Alabama River and reached the apex of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the demonstrators were met by an intimidating sea of Alabama State Troopers equipped with gas masks and an armed sheriff’s posse mounted on horseback. Determined to march on, demonstrators continued to move south across the bridge, but when they passed the invisible line separating the City of Selma from Dallas County, they were attacked with teargas and billy clubs. The resulting confrontation, which left 17 marchers hospitalized and 50 more injured, came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”



Black and white photographs of the conflict are among the most memorable images of the Civil Rights movement in America. However, very little archival material addresses the physical context and experiential timeline of the Bloody Sunday conflict. Today’s visitors to the Edmund Pettus Bridge encounter a landscape that has changed dramatically since 1965, altering their perception of the sites surrounding the conflict. To help visitors more fully understand the events of that day, a multidisciplinary team based in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction (CADC) is producing a suite of digital experiences that document the past and present conditions of this historic site. The team is led by Danielle Willkens, Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture and an architectural designer-historian. Other Auburn members include Richard Burt and Junshan Liu from the McWhorter School of Building Science, Keith Hebert and David Carter from the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts and Bruce Kuerten from the Auburn Media Production Group. The team has also partnered with representatives from the National Park Service and the Old Depot Museum in Selma.


The multidisciplinary group is producing a variety of digital experiences, including an interactive version of the Good Samaritan Hospital log that recorded the treatments of injured marchers and an archive that will include narratives and oral histories of the event. One of the most ambitious projects is a dynamic, interactive 3D model that will allow viewers to explore the site and the events of Bloody Sunday from the points of view of the marchers, the troopers, and the onlookers. In order to create this model, the team first conducted on-site surveys, searching a number of archives for historic images and testing the boundaries of digital modeling. In addition to traditional photography and field notes, they used advanced building construction technology, including 3D LiDAR (small laser scanners), photogrammetry (measurements calculated from photographs) and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). For the on-site survey, the team located 26 stations along the route of the marchers and used two laser scanners to capture a data set known as a point cloud. With multiple scans combined into a single database, the georeferenced point cloud has more than 125 million points and its coordinate system is tied to the Alabama State Plan Coordinate System. This point cloud, in combination with photogrammetry generated by a UAV, serves as a highly accurate database that the team is using to build the 3D digital model of the existing site, complete with topography, buildings, signs, and vegetation.


The digital reconstruction of the site as it stood in 1965 has required countless hours of archival research, planning and coordination with National Park Service staff at the Lowndes County and Selma Interpretative Centers. The State of Alabama’s Photographic Services Division in Montgomery has proved to be an invaluable source of material documenting events that cover a period that spans from the days leading up to Bloody Sunday to the marchers’ arrival in Montgomery on March 24, 1965. The photographs in the collection provide several views of the historic structures and buildings, now gone, that formed the background for the events of Bloody Sunday.


Collected from these rich local repositories, the historic images of the area south of the bridge are being processed through an innovative workflow that uses digital photogrammetry software to obtain geometric and dimensional data for the accurate representation of structures and other features of the site that no longer exist. Combining data from the survey of the current site and historic images, the team will create a model of the site as it was in from 1965. Digital modelers and animators will collaborate with the team to employ augmented reality and interactive simulations, technologies that make it possible to digitally “enter” the event and experience it through the eyes of marchers, troopers and onlookers.


This project will bring one of the most significant events of Civil Rights history to life. Drawing the past forward into the digital world will offer the public opportunities to explore and experience historic events in ways that traditional documents alone cannot recreate. As one team member expressed, “The future of the past lies in how scholars apply developing technologies.”