Idealism meets racism in south Georgia in ‘Class of ‘65’

Atlanta journalist Jim Auchmutey keeps his cool in “The Class of ’65: A Student, A Divided Town, and The Long Road to Forgiveness.” The opportunities for anger and disgust are limitless, but his nonfiction account of homegrown terror during the civil rights era in Americus is a study in noble restraint.

In the foreground, Auchmutey builds his narrative on the life experience of Greg Wittkamper, a white kid who grew up in nearby Koinonia, the pioneering multi-racial farming commune whose members shared a philosophy of nonviolence and early Christian fellowship. The worldview Greg acquired at Koinonia brought him into serious conflict with his peers, and he was no stranger to racist attacks when he rode with four courageous black students desegregating Americus High School in 1964.

The South had many enclaves of medieval cruelty during segregation times, but Americus appears extraordinary even by Jim Crow’s low threshold for depravity. Frances Pauley, a director for the Georgia Council on Human Relations, called Americus, “one of the worst towns I ever worked in. Segregation came first; money came second. Most places put money first, and you could talk to them. But in Americus the bankers didn’t move.”

Today, the southwest Georgia town of 17,000 has a sidewalk plaque memorializing Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia (pronounced COY-no-NEE-ah). The religious collective would become the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity, though, in the beginning, it was not much of a lightning rod, just a dilapidated rural property that Jordan purchased for $8,000 in 1942.

Jordan was a Southern Baptist Minister and a pacifist who had the dream that Koinonia could “become a demonstration plot for the Kingdom.” They farmed row crops and raised animals. “Unlike some religious communities,” writes Auchmutey, “Koinonia never intended to cloister itself from the outside world.” Despite frequent displays of generosity — they had a lending “cow library” to help neighbors in need — it did not go unnoticed that the group sold eggs in cartons that “showed two hands — one black, one white — clasping in friendship.”

Greg’s family arrived at Koinonia in 1953, when he was 6. His father embraced its back-to-the-land austerity and ideal of pacifism. With its running stream and grazing livestock, it felt to Greg “like we had gone to another planet.”

But the bucolic idyll turned out to be in “enemy territory.” Auchmutey notes that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision ordering desegregation of public schools “unleashed passions that threatened to destroy Koinonia.” Retribution came as a two-pronged assault of terror and economic sanction. Fences were cut; machinery destroyed; hundreds of fruit trees leveled. Dynamite charges exploded outbuildings. Koinonia became an easy target, drawing machine gun fire and buckshot from snipers and drive-by shooters.

When Americus stores refused to buy the farm’s products or to sell them fertilizer, food and even children’s shoes, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, who lived 10 miles away, quietly offered to shell Koinonia’s peanuts. After insurance companies cancelled the commune’s policies, Clarence turned to black-owned businesses in Atlanta for help. Support also came from national leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. King reassured Jordan that “in your struggle for freedom…you have a cosmic companionship.”

As the “Mean Season” of the ’60s struggle unfolded, Americus had marches, riots, mass arrests, and many injuries. Four civil rights workers were indicted by Sumter County under Georgia’s rarely used 1833 Insurrection Act, which carried the death penalty. (They were eventually exonerated.)

An Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter and editor for 29 years, Jim Auchmutey creates a vivid portrayal of the burly Sumter County sheriff, Fred D. Chappell, a sadistic lawman with a Chihuahua and a “foul temper.” Chappell delighted in using his Hot Shot electric cattle prod on protesters. Martin Luther King, Jr. once spent two nights in the Sheriff’s jail, remarking afterward, “I had the displeasure of meeting the meanest man in the world.” (It’s interesting how far the Chappell apple fell far from the tree: his son had a role in a political satire of Lester Maddox that ran on Broadway in 1969.)

While “The Class of ‘65” is a well-researched, popular history with a powerful emotional coda, it’s hardly a neat Hollywood script that relies on white redemption and personal enlightenment. Wittkamper’s high school years were brutal, and on numerous occasions he was beaten for his stand on integration. At his graduation ceremony, his name was “booed and hooted,” and he was pelted with bottles by a mob as he fled the scene.

In the aftermath, Greg leaves Americus to attend Friends World College, a Quaker experimental school. He roams the world before settling in the West Virginia countryside, where he establishes himself as something of a real estate “tycoon.” Then, in advance of his high school reunion in 2006, former classmates contact him with hand-written letters asking for his forgiveness.

They weren’t the bad ones, but they had stood by in silence while Greg was humiliated, and they had lived for 40 years with the shame of their compliance. Through work and travel experiences and everyday interactions with African Americans, all had left behind the small town racism of their youth, though not without painful examinations of conscience.

The 2006 reunion became a healing event for Greg and his classmates, but for the black students who first desegregated Americus High, there has been little reconciliation with the past. Some of Greg’s siblings and Koinonia friends remain traumatized. For these victims, there may simply have been too much hate to get beyond. Accordingly, it often seems that Jim Auchmutey must turn to Koinonia’s nonviolent example for guidance; it steers him through the narrows of recrimination and vengeance, but only by the skin of his teeth.

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