Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: September/October 2014
The Civil Rights Tour - An American Experience
By: Judy Miller

Earlier this summer, I was invited to take a bus tour of several southern states planned by two longtime associates, Shirley Smith and her ambitious son, Marlon Smith.  They recently launched their tour company called "Travel and Learn Tours."  Based in Silver Spring, Maryland, the company focuses on bringing American experiences alive with emphasis placed on the contributions of African-Americans.  When Shirley invited me to go on her "2014 Civil Rights Tour Experience," I hesitated because I had previously visited many of the sites listed on her itinerary on separate occasions.  She assured me that this trip would be different: well organized, informative, educational, entertaining, but most of all worry free.   Plus she said the trip would include a few new sites I had yet to visit.  Being a history and political science enthusiast, I could not refuse.

Prior to departing for my seven-day "Civil Rights Tour Experience," Travel and Learn Tours, prepped me for a well-organized adventure I would not forget. The company provided the participants with brochures, conference call opportunities, an easy payment plan, and a website listing the itinerary with short video clippings identifying the places we would visit.  These clippings not only hyped my interest in visiting the new historical sites but also allowed me to formulate any questions I may have had ahead of time.  It would also quench my appetite for more knowledge and allow me another opportunity to step back in time and reflect on the sacrifices so many 1950s and 1960s civil rights activists made so that future generations could be enriched.   For the youth going, it was an opportunity to empower them with an appreciation of one segment of the American story that is sometimes not taught in school and provide them with a sense of who they are.

Our journey started on Monday, June 23rd at a depot located in Silver Spring, Maryland. I arrived there early to allow myself enough time to greet my fellow travelers before embarking on the journey that lay ahead.  I could tell this was going to be a spectacular trip.  All of the travelers were friendly and on time, allowing the bus driver to depart 10 minutes early.  Focusing on the Civil Rights Movement, our tour would begin in North Carolina, continue through Georgia and Alabama, and conclude in Tennessee. 

Travel and Learn Tours arranged for us to visit over 15 museums and historical sites.  Some included:  The King Center, Southern Poverty Law Center, Rosa Parks Museum, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the Selma to Montgomery Interpretive Center, and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.  All of these places are instrumental in preserving and displaying the significant contributions of daring civil rights activists, however, I will focus on two: the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM) located in Greensboro, North Carolina and the Center for Civil and Human Rights Museum (CCHRM) located in Atlanta, Georgia.

International Civil Rights Center and Museum

Approximately 15 years ago, I traveled to Greensboro to locate the old F.W. Woolworth store where four students from North Carolina A&T State College (NC A&T) staged a sit-in (1960) in their efforts to integrate the lunch counter.  Instead, I found what appeared to be an office with a historic maker identifying this site as the former F.W. Woolworth building.  Today, the ICRCM has replaced the office and re-enacts the story of these four brave college students along with their supporters who led a campaign of passive resistance during this turbulent time. This campaign for equity gained momentum throughout the country, often with the support of white students' participation.  Energized by the vitality of the youth, this historic event eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

I was really impressed with our docent Brandon Brockington, a recent graduate of NC A&T, who was enthusiastic and well informed about the Civil Rights Movement. Technology was incorporated in many of the interactive exhibits and period artifacts were available to view.  One particular artifact that stood out was a coke machine in which one side was used for whites and the other side by the colored population.  Whites were charged five cents for a bottle of coke and coloreds ten cents.  I had not heard about this injudicious idea until now and since shared this information with friends.

Center for Civil and Human Rights Museum

Recently opened, the Center for Civil and Human Rights Museum is located in the heart of downtown Atlanta.  It is surrounded by CNN, the Atlanta Aquarium and Coca Cola's headquarters.   Here one will find an array of technological exhibits addressing the Civil Rights Movement as well as modern day international human rights issues. 

The gallery on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was most memorable.  Many museums feature Dr. King as the iconic civil rights leader but the CCHRM places emphasis on his human qualities that made him an admirable gentleman. Visitors can view his original writings and from them understand his thought process, his goals and strategies, and his efforts to present himself with clarity and conviction.  Visitors can also gain a better understanding of a typical day for Dr. King and his daily sacrifices.  This included time away from his family, working with limited resources, and expectation of an impending death.  While viewing King's work, I also thought about how some young adults and our children do not have a clue as to why they are able to enjoy many of the basic accommodations they are privy to today.  I wish I could load up several buses of teenagers to visit this site and study Dr. King's original works.  It would be my hope that they will be inspired to be advocates for their communities.

During our trip, Shirley and Marlon would sometimes provide us with speakers who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  One of the highlights of the trip was meeting Rev. Robert S. Graetz, a white minister to an all black Lutheran church in Montgomery, Alabama and his wife, Jennie.  Rev. Graetz shared with the group his experiences working with Dr. King and Rosa Parks in helping to desegregate the Montgomery public bus system. During the boycott he served as secretary to the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization formed to support the boycott. Throughout this blustery period, he and his family were constantly harassed and their home was bombed several times.  I really admired this man the moment I met him but even more so after I read his book, A White Preacher's Memoir.  The courage and the endurance he displayed during times of indifference highlighted the power of the human spirit when committed to doing what is right.

To captivate the attention of the youth who participated in this trip, Marlon included an educational component.  The students had the opportunity to visit several institutions of higher learning.   Some included:  NC A&T, Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, Meharry Medical College, Fisk University, and Tennessee State University. After their visits, they all would board the bus with excitement, boasting about what institution they liked the best and would hopefully attend in the future.   Because of this exposure, Marlon had planted a seed in the minds of these young people to think about their future. What a brilliant idea!

The Travel and Learn Tours' family and friends, stress-free trip not only allowed me the opportunity to discover more about the civil rights movement but opportunities to enjoy what southern culture has to offer including hospitality, music and cuisine.  Overall, the "2014 Civil Rights Experience" was an amazing, educational, well organized, stress-free experience that provided me with even more insight regarding those heroic civil rights icons who sacrificed their lives for me as well as future generations. 

I am excited to encourage more people to experience the tours and trips planned by Travel and Learn Tours because amazing transformation is taking place.

"As a committed educator with 40+ years as a mathematics teacher, I believe learning can be fun.  Our company mission is to create amazing experiences for individuals and families so they continue growing while having a great time."

Shirley A. Smith

Travel and Learn Tours