“I think that civil rights history—[especially] the people who sacrificed throughout the years to become free, to be able to vote, to live equally—is a very important story,” he says. “And that’s the story I know well and want to tell and share.” That’s why EF Explore America partnered with Leon to create The Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta tour, perfect for educators committed to understanding and teaching the civil rights movement. Thanks to his strong passion for the subject matter, along with his personal connections to people who were directly involved, Leon delivers an immersive, one-of-a-kind experience that features everything from in-depth analyses of popular music of the time to face-to-face conversations with lesser-known heroes.
On tour, students will visit the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
Leon’s own father was heavily involved in the civil rights movement, so Leon learned early on that key figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks weren’t the only people to make change happen. Entire communities bonded together to march, protest, and advocate for racial equality—especially children. As a Tour Director, Leon makes sure students actually meet some of these people, hoping they’ll also feel empowered to take action in their own communities back home. “That’s an important lesson I teach—that these were ordinary people like them, who decided they were going to do something. And that [some of them] are still alive today,” Leon explains.
Leon B., Tour Director
As part of the tour, Leon takes students to Montgomery because he sees it as the “cradle of the Confederacy” and the place where the modern civil rights movement began. While there, he tells students how Montgomery was built specifically for the management and distribution of enslaved people, and even has his travelers walk across the docks where some enslaved people first arrived on ships. “My goal is to add to students’ understanding of how this country was built and present the real history,” Leon says.
Setting the stage hundreds of years ago helps students understand just how much oppression sparked the movement of the 1950s and 1960s—and how recent that latter history really was. “This is a history that many students’ grandparents participated in—this isn’t 150 years ago, this happened in my lifetime,” Leon says. One of the ways students can experience this is by meeting Leon’s friend Sheyann Webb—who, at only nine years old, marched from Selma to Montgomery alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. to advocate for voting rights.
Students will also visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta and Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham.
The tour also visits Birmingham, where travelers learn how the city was largely developed to make steel using cheap labor, and how Jim Crow laws led to it becoming the most segregated place in the country. Students stand at the corner where the 16th Street Baptist Church—which was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan—meets Kelly Ingram Park, home to statues that commemorate those who dedicated and sacrificed their lives for justice. Groups will even meet someone who either belonged to the church at the time of the bombing or who congregated in the park as part of the Children’s Crusade, when 5,000 students skipped school to march in protest of segregation. “The civil rights movement is really about the foot soldiers. To be able to talk to these people who are still alive today adds so much more dimension than just reading about it in a textbook,” says Leon.
Part of the magic of traveling on an EF Explore America tour is the unique perspective, passion, and personality each Tour Director brings. As a retired Tour Manager for major R&B artists like Rick James, Commodores, BabyFace, and more, Leon sites music as his first love—and sees it as an important tool for telling stories. “When you’re teaching the civil rights movement, it’s about using your five senses,” he says. “Music is such an important part of this story because when protestors got ready to march, they sang songs. They sang Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn You Round by The Freedom Singers during the walks from Selma to Montgomery.” So Leon plays this song for groups before they arrive in Montgomery, not only explaining its cultural significance and how it remains one of the most popular songs from the civil rights movement, but to also help students really visualize what walking in these 54-mile marches were like.
Leon emphasizes the importance of keeping history alive—especially beyond just a chapter in a textbook. “If you don’t teach a generation of young people the history of our country, it’s forgotten. When you preserve history, you preserve culture—and that’s why this particular tour is so important,” he explains. So when Leon tells the story of the civil rights movement through music, conversations with people who were there, and having students walk in the footsteps of changemakers, he also encourages them to find a unique way of sharing their own experiences in life—ultimately keeping future history alive, too.