I’m sitting at the lunch counter of an American diner in the Deep South, eyes closed, lost in my thoughts of a time harking back to the Sixties.

Suddenly, I hear voices behind me, taunting, menacing, spitting racist abuse and threatening words, and soon I feel surrounded - the vibration of a growing hostile mob rippling through the steel shaft of my seat.

Taking off my headphones, I’ve just felt what it must have been like to be a black person at one of the many sit-ins staged by civil rights campaigners fighting for desegregation and the right to vote, little more than 50 years ago.

It’s one of many interactive experiences in the Center For Civil And Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, at the start of a road trip that will take me nearly 800 miles over four states from Martin Luther King Jr’s birthplace in Atlanta, across Alabama and Mississippi, to the now infamous Lorraine Motel where he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

The US Civil Rights Trail (civilrightstrail.com), which opened officially last year, stretches more than 100 locations across 15 states, from Kansas across to Washington in the east and down to Florida.

There’s heavy emphasis on civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, the Christian minister inspired by Gandhi, whose non-violent campaign for voting rights and desegregation led to major law changes.

Tourists flock to his birthplace at 501 Auburn Avenue and his final resting place in a tomb alongside his widow Coretta Scott King in Atlanta.

But markers also pay tribute to lesser-known individuals who sacrificed so much for the cause.

Our next two stops take us to the most important cities for civil rights in Alabama: Birmingham and Montgomery, both ‘Jim Crow’ segregation hotspots.

Birmingham, once deemed by King to be the most segregated city in the US, was nicknamed ‘Bombingham’ in the Fifties due to the high amount of racially-motivated bombings.

Today, in the sunshine, it’s hard to envisage the leafy, tranquil Kelly Ingram Park as a bloody battlefield in the spring of 1963, when peaceful student civil rights protesters were set upon by police dogs and blasted with fire hoses whose water pressure could shear the hair from your head.

Some 80 miles south in Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama, we see the plaque - and eponymous museum - where seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat to whites on a city bus in 1955.

This led to a 13-month boycott of city buses by black people, led by King, then pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church nearby.

The movement won the battle, its first major victory, as the US Supreme Court ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional.

Of course, Montgomery is synonymous with Selma, 54 miles away, the scene of a major civil rights march in 1965, when 600 peaceful protesters were attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by hostile state troopers with tear gas and billy clubs , some of whom were on horseback.

Crossing into Mississippi, the poorest state in the US with one of the most notoriously violent records of racism, we drive through the delta, the empty road slicing through powder puffs of white cotton fields where cotton pickers once slaved.

Despite federal laws which banned segregation and gave African Americans voting rights, Mississippians frequently ignored them. Lynchings still took place long after desegregation laws were passed.

But the state is acknowledging its past, opening two fantastic museums in 2017 in Jackson side by side: the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (the only state-funded civil rights museum in the country) and the Museum of Mississippi History.

Our last stop is Memphis, Tennessee, a lively hub of blues and barbecue, with its bedazzling neon vibe and juke joints of Beale Street, Elvis’s Graceland in all its tacky glory south of the city, and the once unremarkable Lorraine Motel, now a sombre reminder of where King was shot on the balcony of Room 306 by James Earl Ray.

The motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, with a reconstruction of his hotel bedroom complete with mustard carpet and beige bedspreads. It feels like an inauspicious end to a laudable life.

Getting there

America As You Like It (americaasyoulikeit.com; 020 8742 8299) offers a 14-night Civil Rights fly-drive from £1,672 per person, including flights from Heathrow to Atlanta and Memphis to Heathrow, car hire, two nights in Atlanta, two nights in Birmingham, two nights in Montgomery, two nights in Jackson, two nights in Cleveland, two nights in Clarksdale and two nights in Memphis. Price based on two people sharing, some breakfasts included.

For details of civil rights trails, visit Deep South USA (deep-south-usa.com/civilrights) and civilrightstrail.com. For information on individual states, visit exploregeorgia.org; alabama.travel; tnvacation.com and visitmississippi.org.

Car hire in the USA with Hertz (hertz.co.uk) starts from £23 a day. Explore the ‘Road To Civil Rights’ with Hertz Road Trip Planner route on hertz.com/usaroadtripplanner.