how far we've come

The Class of '65: A Student, a Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness by Jim Auchmutey

So this teenager, Greg Wittkamper, saw himself in the lyrics of Bob Dylan. He was a victim of social injustice. He longed to see “the chimes of freedom flashing.” The chiming so long overdue for the “warrior whose strength was not to fight.” But justice would take its time in rolling like a mighty stream in Americus, Georgia, where Greg Wittkamper would keep on pushing — and keep putting his life on the line for what he knew was right. What was right, he knew, was ordained by God — the same God his tormentors claimed as their own. It very nearly killed him, but Wittkamper wouldn’t “turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see.” He’d remember that “the trail is dusty, the road it might be rough, but the good road is a-waitin’ and boys it ain’t far off.” Eventually that “Path of Victory” can be reached. Even in Americus, Georgia.

In The Class Of ’65, Jim Auchmutey chronicles the “trails of troubles” and “roads of battles” Greg Wittkamper bravely traveled, paying dearly for each step. All before he graduated from Americus High School. All before his 18th birthday. Three years before the state of Georgia deemed him a legal adult, Greg Wittkamper had already absorbed a lifetime of learning. The lessons were demanding from the start.

Not yet six years-old, Greg found himself deep in the heart of southwest Georgia. His parents, Will and Margaret Wittkamper, had chosen an endeavor they knew unorthodox, but all part of God’s work. Will and Margaret, with their three boys, Billy, Greg and David, journeyed to Koinonia, the Christian farming commune just 9 miles south of Americus. At Koinonia they would live, work, pray and embrace the fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ. The surrounding community of Sumter County, though purportedly Christian, looked askance at the Koinonia philosophy in most cases, even though it was based on the examples of the first Christians, as recorded in the fourth chapter of Acts, verses 32-35:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

Redistribution of wealth was anathema in the Deep South during the McCarthy era, when the Wittkampers were settling in at Koinonia. While it was accepted that the first Christians utilized a form of collectivism, in 1953 such arrangements smacked of godless communism. Nearly as troubling to the community at large was another ism: pacifism. Koinonia partners earnestly followed that principle, believing it consistent with Christ’s teachings. Even more radical for Sumter County, the people at Koinonia believed God’s love and mercy extended to everyone, including blacks. Koinonia’s founder, Clarence Jordan, went beyond lip service in that belief; he and the members of Koinonia practiced it — as naturally as they ate beans and cornbread. On the 1,100 acre farm, blacks and whites worked, ate and prayed together.

As historians and journalists have long reported, the Deep South wasn’t only a hotbed of prejudice, but a precarious place if you held radically different beliefs — and too often dangerous if you were black. Auchmutey, always observant and thorough in his reporting at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, captures the atmosphere and attitudes that meted out punishment.– for believing, or just being. He delineates a time, in one corner of one state, when hell visited those who rejected hatred — those simply following the teachings of the one that most in the community accepted as their Savior. He doesn’t rely on histrionics when relating the horrors; he calmly reports them. In a judicious and conversational tone, Auchmutey, in The Class of ’65, places the reader in the middle of unrelenting enmity and rancor, which more than a generation later gives way to remorse and forgiveness. The “good road,” may have been farther off than Dylan’s protagonist projected in “Paths of Victory,” but in many ways, it was reached for those who fought the good fight in Americus, Georgia. The Class Of ’65 all at once reminds us of how far we’ve come and how long and rough the path has been.

Wounded With Hatred. . . . It was a small, earnest favor resulting in terror and the fear of what would come next. A minister friend asked Clarence Jordan if he’d recommend a pair of black students for enrollment at the all-white Georgia State College of Business (now the colossus Georgia State University). In downtown Atlanta. In the same neighborhood as the state capitol; nearly 150 miles from Americus. Jordan didn’t regard it as a crusading endeavor; he just thought it right to comply with his friend’s request. This was 1956. Just the year before, Herman Talmadge, having finished his one term as Georgia’s governor, published the vitriolic You and Segregation, a diatribe focusing on the usual suspects: the Warren Court, integration, the NAACP, and duped fellow-travelers. Son of the autocratic Eugene Talmadge (elected to 4 terms as Georgia’s governor), Herman was a most popular politician; his views on race struck most white Georgians as sound theory. Naturally, the theories of Clarence Jordan’s were fiercely denounced, as was Jordan. And for stepping out of line, Jordan’s Koinonia partners were terrorized; their livelihoods — and their lives — in peril.

When news of Jordan’s modest efforts to help two young black men reached southwest Georgia, people in Americus reacted violently against “the eccentric band of Christians out on Highway 49.” First the threatening phone calls. Then the threats were made good. Vandalism on the Koinonia farm went from cutting the fences to chopping 300 fruit trees. Sugar was dumped into the gas tanks of the farm’s trucks. The Koinonia roadside market was bombed. Months later, it would be bombed again. Shots were fired into the Koinonia homes and at the children as they played volleyball.

Then there were those who didn’t resort to violence but exacted punishment at the cash register. Merchants wouldn’t sell vital supplies to Koinonia residents. No gasoline, no butane, no fertilizer, no auto parts. No insurance either, since the farm attracted so much destruction. The Koinonia families couldn’t even buy the basics in Americus. No groceries. No clothing for the kids. And the Americus clampdown on all things Koinonia worked both ways: The residents couldn’t buy nor could they sell what they produced at the farm. The merchants of Americus, heartless as well as spineless, claimed they were only responding to “pressure from levelheaded businessmen.” Cracking the whip along with the merchants were the local and state governments, as well as the Americus churches. One Sunday after church services, business leaders visited the Koinonians, offering this advise: “get out or there would be blood.” The Koinonians would be the ones bloodied, and they were told it would be their fault. Such was the attitude in this corner of the land of the free. Not even 12 years after the Allies’ victory, what the people of southwest Georgia gleaned most from World War II were the leadership qualities of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.

The Wittkampers, particularly Greg, hung in there. Greg turned all of ten years old in 1957, the year the nation learned of violence played out in his small part of the world. Violence meted against his family and their close-knit community. It would’ve been understandable and even advisable to leave Georgia and its embrace of hatred, but that went against who and what they were. Greg, who in his teens, listened often and closely to the songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, could see himself playing a role very similar to what was described in Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom:”

Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the luckless, the outcast, burnin’ at the stake

The Unarmed Road Of Flight. . . . By 1964, as Greg entered his senior year at Americus High School, the United States was truly beginning to live up to the words of Abraham Lincoln and the nation’s Founding Fathers. Something about all men created equal and born with certain unalienable rights. That July, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became the law of the land. Other reforms on freedom’s side, like the Voting Rights Act, would soon follow. However, there was no celebration of the enacted freedoms among the so-called responsible business and religious leaders of Americus. But celebrations or not, on August 31, 1964, Americus High School was finally integrated. Three black students registered for classes, ready to take on the pain that went with the pride of being first.

Greg realized his black friends needed support, so he joined the three black students as they rode in a limo supplied by Barnum’s Funeral Home. Greg knew he wasn’t losing any friends among the students who greeted him and the three young blacks with hurled bricks, rocks, obscenities and various other forms of intimidation. After all, his Koinonia background doomed any friendship with his classmates. But since he was white, the hatred directed at Greg was even angrier; he was the traitor in their midst. The torment was unrelenting. He was pushed, shoved, beaten, even threatened with a blackjack. It was tempting for him to break away and be done with it. The diploma could wait; a piece of paper from that school in that town couldn’t amount to much anyway. But he carried on, wishing for peace and wishing to act peacefully.

But turning the other cheek is a tall order, even for one who considered the tenet core to his being. Greg didn’t want to use his fists but he was tired of the anxiety and fear. At least he needed to learn how to defend himself and perhaps deliver a blow that would make his adversaries think twice the next time they chastised him. His thoughts on the matter, however, took an uphill course. If he abandoned his pacific creed, even momentarily, he would have to win the fight big-time. And if he did, would one victorious bout would rule out any further challenges?

Need A Shot Of Love. . . . Early in his senior year, Greg was surrounded by the usual gang of tormentors. One guy in particular, Thomas Jordan, was spoiling for a fight and he had plenty of support. A tag-team ready to pummel Greg. The legion of bullies knocked Greg’s books out of his hands and demanded he duke it out. Thomas slugged Greg in the left cheek. After turning the other cheek, Greg followed yet another of Jesus’s commandments, remembering to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Greg adhered to the scriptures from both the Old and New Testaments ( Proverbs 15:1 and Matthew 5:44). He moved closer to his enemy, hoping a soft answer would turn away wrath. Greg took Solomon’s wisdom to heart. And it worked. The bullies were stunned and confused. The fight was over nearly as soon as it began. Greg walked away. Life would hardly be nothing but blue skies from then on, but the darkest days were finally behind him.

Greg Wittkamper got his Americus High School diploma, for whatever it was worth. The diploma confirmed he had completed the courses required by the State of Georgia. But his was an education that went above and beyond the standard curriculum — an intensive study on the plagues of hatred and ignorance. Given all he had learned, Greg realized it was time to get out of Georgia. The education would continue in other countries, on other continents. On graduation night, he celebrated with black friends on their side of Americus. Yet far more exotic destinations, with their attendant lessons and revelations, awaited. Also in Greg’s journey, more than 40 years in the offing, would be confessions, apologies, reconciling and the strength needed to forgive.

Letters arrived at Greg’s West Virginia home from Americus High School classmates. Another reunion was on tap. Some of the classmates had learned from the sins of their youth. The way they had treated Greg and black people in their town haunted them. They couldn’t make up for it but they could show remorse and express sorrow for the way they responded to Greg’s brave and quiet example. They made sure Greg realized his presence at their 40th class reunion was desired. Necessary. Greg Wittkamper realized he wanted to be there too.

And Let Others Do For You. . . . Along with a generous heart, Greg brought his guitar to the reunion. He was asked to sing a couple of songs as the evening drew to a close. Auchmutey writes that Greg had often entertained a fantasy of singing Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” to his old classmates. The song’s admonition: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes” would have likely gone above their heads for most of the years between high school and the 40th reunion, but much had changed. Standing before his old tormentors, who were now his new friends, he sang “Blowin’ In The Wind,” the Dylan song with a strong attachment to the civil rights movement. He also sang the quietly uplifting “Forever Young,” which Dylan wrote with one of his children in mind; a song with simple and compelling wishes. The opening words, “May God bless and keep you always,” conveys a common hope while two lines in the second verse show recognition of the challenges ahead:

May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong

In The Class of ’65, Jim Auchmutey has given worthy attention to a brave soul who stood upright when — Dylan’s words from “Forever Young” again — “the winds of changes shift.” The Class Of ’65 also compels us to explore the question, “how many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?” Quite often, from Baltimore to South Central, that man could be any one of us. Readers are also reminded that even with Greg Wittkamper’s courage and vindication, most of the young black people he befriended had little chance of leaving the hard scrabble life of the black man’s Georgia. Unlike Greg, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to see the world with a Quakers-sponsored group of young students. They were left in a Georgia where the Governor, a so-called moderate named Carl Sanders, considered Martin Luther King, Jr. a militant. And they couldn’t have felt much better about life in Georgia, even as Congress passed major civil rights legislation, when the notorious segregationist Lester Maddox succeeded Sanders in office. They would struggle and strive as “the winds of changes shift.” For some, including those Greg accompanied on the day Americus High School integrated, their struggling and striving led to fruitful lives. As a great contemporary of Bob Dylan’s, Curtis Mayfield would tell it: they kept on pushing.

By thoughtfully telling the story of one man’s benevolence and inner strength, Jim Auchmutey prompts his readers to give more thought to those who struggle to strive. The Class Of ’65 is a brilliant work. It provides Americans with a unique perspective and a new understanding of their country’s history.

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Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.