"The Class of '65: A Student, a Divided Town and the Long Road to Forgiveness" (Public Affairs), by Jim Auchmutey
In 1965, the all-white high school in the small, south Georgia town of Americus ended its policy of racial segregation and admitted black students for the first time.
As white Americus erupted in anger, the four black students encountered the now-familiar abuses endured by the pioneers of school integration in the years following the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. A rock-throwing mob met them at the school. Their classmates shunned and bullied them. Participating in extra-curricular activities like athletic teams was out of the question.
In at least one respect, however, the tumult of school integration was different in Americus: When the black students rode to school to meet that mob, a sympathetic white high school senior rode with them.
Author Jim Auchmutey, a journalist who worked for nearly three decades at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, expertly tells the story of that student, the Americus community, the larger civil rights struggle and an unexpected reconciliation decades later in "The Class of '65: A Student, a Divided Town and the Long Road to Forgiveness."
Auchmutey cannot tell story of Greg Wittkamper without also telling the story of the unique setting in which he was raised: a progressive, Christian communal farm called Koinonia. The name comes from a Greek word that connotes "community." Founded near Americus in the 1940s, Koinonia was dedicated to pacifism and interracial fellowship — two principles that placed its members in the crosshairs of Southern white racists who dominated the local landscape. Over the decades, Koinonia members were banned from local white churches, their farm products were boycotted and their property was firebombed and shotgunned. (Koinonia later gave birth to the internationally known housing ministry Habitat for Humanity.)
Before Wittkamper sided with the black newcomers at his high school, he had already endured years of ostracism by his peers because he came from Koinonia. During that difficult school year, he endured physical bullying as well. Although a lifetime of farm labor had given him a strong, athletic frame, his pacifist upbringing forbade him from striking back. In one pivotal scene, Auchmutey relates how Wittkamper was cornered by several dozen boys near the high school's baseball grandstand and challenged to fight. As the crowd hollered "hit him," one classmate balled up his fist and punched Wittkamper in the face, nearly knocking him to the ground. Wittkamper stayed on his feet, stepped in closer and told his attacker, "I love you."
After attending the prom — the prom at the black high school, not the white one — and enduring one more round of harassment during graduation, Wittkamper put Americus behind him as quickly as he could.
But the tale does not end with graduation.
Decades later, Wittkamper began receiving letters from his classmates. They were sorry, they said, for how they had treated him. Some had been unable to shake the memory of the strong young man who could have fought back but refused to do so — a compelling image for Protestant children raised on Sunday School stories about turning the other cheek. And they wanted him to come to the 40th reunion of the class of '65.
The reconciliation that follows in Auchmutey's compelling narrative is at times tentative and halting, but also filled with emotional power. And it appears to be still in progress. At the time of the reunion, it included only Wittkamper and his white classmates. The closing section of Auchmutey's book suggests another chapter yet to be written, as blacks and whites together make peace with the past.
Don Schanche Jr. is an editor on the South Desk of The Associated Press in Atlanta.