How to Organize a Racial Reckoning Trip, Independent College Edition

As colleges and universities continue to reckon with a slaveholding past, some institutions have designed study trips to places where the legacies of slavery are still very much alive and visible.

The Southern landscape is littered with former plantations, but it’s also rich with physical markers, churches, homes, museums, and other spaces of civic engagement that memorialize the experiences of African Americans from enslavement through the modern Civil Rights era.

Colleges and universities that want to help their students (or even alumni) understand the legacies of slavery across the nation may find inspiration in the work of these CIC member institutions:

At St. Olaf College (Northfield, Minn.), retired religion professor David Booth organized a trip for alumni travelers that traced the history of the Civil Rights Movement across the Deep South. The visited sites in Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama. The St. Olaf alumni met with former Freedom Riders and engaged in difficult conversations about race and the state of America. The trip—“America’s Struggle for Civil Rights: Religion, Race, and the Work of Justice”—will be offered again in April 2024.

Booth described the origins of the study trip this way:

[When] George Floyd was murdered and the subsequent uprising announced a new chapter in America’s “racial reckoning,” I proposed that our trip should visit these same sites but adopt a new curriculum. We focused on the most basic questions: what is race? What is racism? Why does white supremacy persist? How is Christianity entangled both with white supremacy and with the struggle for racial justice?

The participants were all white, mostly from the upper-Midwest, all with connections of one sort or another to St. Olaf. They were all motivated by the memory of George Floyd and by the intensity of the uprising in Minneapolis. They were ready for deep reflection on white privilege … we did not travel merely out of historical curiosity, voyeurism, or meaningless reverence. We traveled to take a step of self-healing.

St. Olaf associate professor emeritus David Booth and his wife, retired attorney Ann Tobin, in front of one of the sites they visited during last fall’s alumni trip.

Robert Clark (left), assistant professor of history, and Patrick Oliver (right), director of the criminal justice program at Cedarville University, teach “Civil Rights in America—Tour” as a 3-credit, half-semester course. The course satisfies an elective requirement in social science or history.

Faculty members at Cedarville University, a Baptist institution founded in Ohio in 1887, have designed an immersive trip for students who want to explore the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Robert Clark, an assistant professor of history, believes that students “gain cultural competency, develop Christlike character, and prepare to engage their culture with grace and truth,” when they go on trips like these.

“Civil Rights in America—Tour” is offered as a 3-credit, half-semester course. After extensive preparation in the classroom, the actual tour encompasses an extended weekend in the South, with on-site lectures at key sites. The instructors also make maximum use of time on the bus between sites by screening documentaries about the struggles and realities of the Civil Rights Movement.

Students from Emory & Henry College gather for a group photo in front of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

During the 2023 spring break, instructors from Emory & Henry College (Emory, Va.) led a study trip across the South for 27 students and 15 additional community members.

The trip was a collaboration between the college’s Appalachian Center for Civic Life, several academic programs, and the athletics office—an admirable example of interdisciplinary cooperation and organization. Starting in Marion, Alabama, the hometown of Coretta Scott King, the travelers then visited Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery. Stops along the way included the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Scott Sikes, director of the Appalachian Center for Civic Life, explains that:

We were able to plan this with collaboration from community members because of an ongoing partnership with a group in a nearby location. They have been involved in working with our students on a series of community conversations … about building connections and common ground. The idea for the trip arose before the pandemic, and we were able to finally bring the plans to fruition this year. It was an extraordinary experience, one that I think was highly rewarding to both students and community members.

Does your college sponsor a study trip or experiential course devoted to slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, or any other legacy of slavery? Please let us know at; we’d like to add your example to our Resource Database.