The Class of '65

A Student, a Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness


By Jim Auchmutey

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In the midst of racial strife, one young man showed courage and empathy. It took forty years for the others to join him

Being a student at Americus High School was the worst experience of Greg Wittkamper’s life. Greg came from a nearby Christian commune, Koinonia, whose members devoutly and publicly supported racial equality. When he refused to insult and attack his school’s first black students in 1964, Greg was mistreated as badly as they were: harassed and bullied and beaten. In the summer after his senior year, as racial strife in Americus — and the nation — reached its peak, Greg left Georgia.

Forty-one years later, a dozen former classmates wrote letters to Greg, asking his forgiveness and inviting him to return for a class reunion. Their words opened a vein of painful memory and unresolved emotion, and set him on a journey that would prove healing and saddening.

The Class of ’65 is more than a heartbreaking story from the segregated South. It is also about four of Greg’s classmates — David Morgan, Joseph Logan, Deanie Dudley, and Celia Harvey — who came to reconsider the attitudes they grew up with. How did they change? Why, half a lifetime later, did reaching out to the most despised boy in school matter to them? This noble book reminds us that while ordinary people may acquiesce to oppression, we all have the capacity to alter our outlook and redeem ourselves.


Seventeen Koinonia children waiting for
the school bus, mid-1950s. Courtesy of Conrad Browne

A Student,
a Divided Town,
and the Long Road
to Forgiveness

Jim Auchmutey

Copyright © 2015 by Jim Auchmutey.

Published in the United States by PublicAffairs™, a Member of the Perseus Books Group

All rights reserved.

Printed in the United States of America.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address PublicAffairs, 250 West 57th Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10107.

PublicAffairs books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103, call (800) 810-4145, ext. 5000, or e-mail

Book Design by Pauline Brown

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Auchmutey, Jim.

The class of '65 : a student, a divided town, and the long road to forgiveness / Jim Auchmutey. — First edition.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-61039-354-6 (hardcover)—ISBN 978-1-61039-355-3 (e-book) 1. Wittkamper, Greg, 1947—Childhood and youth. 2. Americus (Ga.)—Race relations—History—20th century. 3. School integration—Georgia—Americus—History—20th century. 4. High school students—Georgia—Americus—Biography. 5. Youth, White—Georgia—Americus—Biography. 6. Koinonia Farm—Biography. 7. Outcasts—Georgia—Americus—Biography. 8. Persecution—Georgia—Americus—History—20th century. 9. Class reunions—Georgia—Americus. 10. Forgiveness—Georgia—Americus. I. Title. II. Title: Class of sixty-five.

F294.A5A83 2015




First Edition

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For all the people who stand up for what they know is right.

It is curious—curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.

Mark Twain



Part 1: Koinonia

Chapter 1: Farming for Jesus

Chapter 2: "We Made Our Reality"

Chapter 3: Terror in the Night

Part 2: Americus

Chapter 4: The Children's Hour

Chapter 5: Welcome to the Revolution

Chapter 6: "Not in My Town"

Part 3: Senior Year

Chapter 7: Among Panthers

Chapter 8: Still Standing

Chapter 9: A Lesson Before Leaving

Part 4: Continuing Education

Chapter 10: The Next Selma

Chapter 11: Breaking Away

Chapter 12: Growing Up

Part 5: Reunion

Chapter 13: Almost Heaven

Chapter 14: Guilt and Grace

Chapter 15: Back to Americus




Selected Bibliography



On a cool morning in early May, Greg Wittkamper got in his Subaru Outback and started up the gravel road leading from his house in the mountains of southern West Virginia. He was going to check his post office box in the nearest town, Sinks Grove, as he did almost every day. Mixed in with the usual bills and business correspondence was a letter he had never expected to see: an invitation to his high school reunion.

High school had been the worst time of Greg's life, his nightmare years. He wasn't bullied so much as he was persecuted for his beliefs and those of his parents and of the singular religious community where they lived. Greg went to school in Americus, nine miles from Jimmy Carter's hometown of Plains, in the cotton and peanut country of southwest Georgia. At the beginning of his senior year, he made a point of riding to class with three black students who were desegregating Americus High School, an institution that had been reserved for whites since its founding in the previous century. A mob assaulted them with rocks and curses in a scene reminiscent of the disorders that greeted the first black students at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and at so many other campuses across the South.

What made this scene different was Greg's presence. He was white. He didn't have to risk his neck by accompanying the black students to school. He did it because he was raised that way. Greg had grown up in a Christian farming commune outside Americus called Koinonia (pronounced COY-no-NEE-ah, after the Greek word for fellowship). Koinonia is known today as the birthplace of one of America's best-loved nonprofit organizations, Habitat for Humanity, but the farm was anything but loved during Greg's childhood. Back then, it was notorious, resented, despised. Its residents believed in nonviolence, communal sharing, and interracial living, all of which set them against the reigning white culture of that time and place. For several years, the community was attacked and boycotted in a harbinger of the violence that awaited civil rights activists in the Deep South. Koinonia was a dangerous place to be from, especially if you also happened to be a student at a school being forced to desegregate—a student who actually supported that desegregation.

The last time Greg had seen any of his classmates was graduation day, in the early summer of 1965, when his name was booed and hooted during the diploma ceremony. Now they were inviting him back to their fortieth reunion. He hadn't lived in Georgia in decades. He wondered how they even knew where to find him.

Greg leafed through the rest of his mail and noticed a familiar name on a return address: David Morgan. He tore open the letter.

"I expect you will be quite surprised to hear from me," it began. "If you remember me at all, it will likely be for unpleasant reasons."

Greg remembered him all right. While David hadn't hurled insults or thrown a fist, he was part of the crowd of students that jeered as others harassed him during his three years at Americus High. They spat on him, ripped his books, tripped him on the stairs, pissed in his locker. A couple of guys even hit him in the face. Greg had heard about scapegoats in the Old Testament; he didn't know he was going to become one.

"Throughout the last 40-plus years," the letter continued, "I have occasionally thought of you and those dark days you endured at our hands. As I matured, I became more and more ashamed, and wished that I had taken a different stand back then."

Greg stared at the paper and felt his throat tighten. He was nearing sixty now, his waist thicker, his beard showing patches of gray, and he was content with his life in West Virginia, where his real estate business was going well and he had recently remarried and had a young daughter to dote on. But some hurts never go away. In everyone's memory, there's something hidden, something dark, something no one wants to think about when the lights go out and sleep won't come. For Greg, it was Americus High School. The most painful chapter of his back pages was pulling him into the past, whether he wanted to go or not.


In the fall of 1964, Greg was seventeen, a powerfully built young man who stood five foot nine and had strong, stubby hands that bore testament to hours spent working on the farm. He looked pretty much like the other guys at school. He wore his brown hair short, with a forelock that curled down from his widow's peak like a comma, and had light blue eyes that twinkled when he smiled, giving his face an elfish aspect. Not that his classmates saw his lighter side. When he was around them, he kept to himself and didn't speak any more than he had to. If the others had bothered to learn anything about him, they would have found out that he loved music and had saved up to buy an acoustic Gibson guitar, which he often used to pick out Joan Baez and Bob Dylan songs. Greg could see himself in Dylan's lyrics about victims of social injustice and "warriors whose strength is not to fight," and when he sang them, his soft, placid speaking voice turned raspy and uneasy, as if there were something in the tunes that touched a burr in his soul. None of his classmates had a clue about Greg. They didn't know him, or want to. To them, he was a quiet oddball, a toxic carrier of abhorrent beliefs, a religious exotic philosophically committed to nonviolence in a world where guns and force were all too often the final arbiter.

Greg Wittkamper in his senior portrait.

Despite his pacifist beliefs, Greg could get angry. What he witnessed at the start of his senior year definitely made him angry.

That fall, more than ten years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public education, the local school board finally admitted a token number of blacks to Americus High. On the Friday before classes were to begin, the principal convened a special preterm assembly so he could prepare the student body for a passage that most of them considered unthinkable. It was the last act of a whites-only school. "We're going to have some black students this year," he announced. "You don't have to be their friends. I just don't want any violence."

The assembly chafed Greg. He thought the principal should have tried to explain that the world was changing whether they liked it or not and at least suggested that everyone be civil to the newcomers, even if they didn't agree with them being at their school. Instead, he telegraphed to the students that he wasn't all that pleased about desegregation himself. His lukewarm message seemed to give everyone tacit permission to be as nasty as they pleased, as long as they didn't throw rocks or slug somebody or do something else that might hit the news and make Americus look bad.

If no one else would welcome the black students, Greg would. He knew all four of them far better than he knew the white kids: David Bell, Robertiena Freeman, Dobbs Wiggins, Jewel Wise. He had socialized with them, dated some of their kin, joined most of them in civil rights protests. The plan was for the group to ride to class in a limousine provided by the county's most prominent black-owned business, the Barnum Funeral Home. Greg asked to go along in a show of solidarity.

On Monday, the first day of classes, only minor incidents were reported. The school board had not publicized the desegregation and was hoping for calm compliance. The strategy seemed to be working. By Tuesday, however, word had spread.

Greg arrived at the funeral home early that morning and climbed into the back of the limousine with Jewel and Robertiena. Dobbs was in front riding shotgun. David wasn't with them because his parents, fearing trouble, were holding him out of school for a few days. They were right to be concerned.

As the car approached campus, the passengers could see dozens of people gathered outside the school along Bell Street. Through raised windows, they saw a blur of faces distorted in pink-cheeked anger and heard their shouts:

"What are you doing here?"

"Get back to your school."

"Go home, niggers!"

Rocks and dirt clods struck the vehicle like antiaircraft flak. The incoming fire slacked off as the car turned into the campus and pulled up in front of the mobile home that had served as the administrative office since fire destroyed the main school building during the previous term. The Sumter County sheriff, Fred Chappell, a hulking man with bulging eyes and a history of animosity toward Koinonia and the civil rights movement, stood there waiting like a final barrier. He motioned for the car to keep moving, as if the people sitting inside were the ones disturbing the peace and not the mob that had surrounded them. Greg had been around the sheriff before, usually when he came out to the farm to respond to a drive-by shooting or some other act of violence, and he knew how intimidating the man could be. Chappell seemed especially menacing this morning because of an unfortunate coincidence. Greg had injured an eye in a farm accident and still suffered from occasional spells of double vision. To his horror, he looked out the window and saw two sheriffs scowling at the limousine.

The driver defied Chappell's gestures to keep moving and stopped the limo. The sheriff, his face flushed with irritation, jerked the front passenger door open and loomed above Dobbs. "Either get out now or get out of here!" he commanded.

Dobbs hesitated. Greg opened a rear door and cut between him and the sheriff, who seemed startled to see a white boy pop out of the car.

"This is it, Dobbs. We have to do it," Greg said. He pointed him toward the administrative trailer as the first bell sounded.

The black students reported to the principal's office, where special plans were being made to get them into classes late and out early so there would be less opportunity for incidents. No such plans had been made for Greg. He drifted away to his homeroom to face months of spite and resentment on his own.


It all came back in vivid detail as Greg sat in his Subaru opening the mail, hundreds of miles and decades away from Georgia.

There were other letters after David's. One came from South Carolina, from Celia Harvey, whom Greg remembered as a cute, shy girl who had assiduously avoided him at school. "I'm writing this letter today to ask for your forgiveness," she wrote. Another envelope came from Alabama, from Joseph Logan, who had been cocaptain of the Americus High football team. He had enclosed a four-hundred-word sketch about an assault on Greg that he had witnessed during their senior year. "I hope your reading it does not cause unpleasant memories about AHS," he said in an accompanying note, "but I am sure it will." The most anguished letter, postmarked in Florida, was from Deanie Dudley, one of the most popular girls in the senior class, the homecoming queen. Greg smiled at the thought of Deanie; he had nursed a secret crush on her in high school, something she'd have been mortified to know about at the time. Her apology was couched in religious terms and suggested a keen sense of guilt. "I will never again say, 'How could the Holocaust have happened—how could all those Christian people in Poland and Germany have stood by and allowed it to happen?' I was present with you over a long period of time, and I never once did one thing to comfort you or reach out to you. It was cruelty."

As Greg sat on the West Virginia roadside studying the neatly penned confession, a mixture of painful memories and pent-up feelings coursed through him, and he started to weep. "You won't believe this," he told his wife when he returned home. "Something wonderful is happening."

Later, when his emotions had ebbed, he began to have second thoughts. He wondered why his classmates had waited so long to say they were sorry. He wondered what had happened in their lives to change them. Had they really changed at all, or were they simply getting older and looking for easy absolution? What would he find if he went back to Americus, the scene of so much ugliness and unhappiness? Did he really want to look into those faces after all these years and risk reopening wounds that he thought had long since scabbed over?

Could he be at peace with himself if he didn't go back?

Part 1


chapter 1

Farming for Jesus

Greg Wittkamper was nearly six when he first saw Koinonia on a misty, unseasonably cool afternoon in the summer of 1953. He and his family had driven seven hundred miles from Louisiana to their new home in Georgia, and as they arrived at their destination, their meager possessions piled in a pickup truck and trailer, they looked like a clan of Okies fleeing the dust bowl. In a sense, they were refugees—refugees of conscience.

Greg's father, Will Wittkamper, was a minister who couldn't keep a job. In a decade as a clergyman with the Disciples of Christ denomination, he had been booted out of every church he had pastored, mainly because of his stubborn insistence on counseling young men to resist military service. This was not conventional advice during World War II and the surge of patriotism that followed the great victory. He was only recommending what he had done himself more than twenty years before, during the First World War, when he was imprisoned for draft evasion.

Despite his young age, Greg had already developed a sense of himself as a preacher's son. Every Sunday morning, his mother would dress him and his older brother in matching brown suits and park them in a pew with their baby brother, where they would squirm and occasionally act up as their father warned the congregation of the man-made hell that came from not heeding God's commandment to love thy neighbor. Greg was vaguely troubled by all the talk of war and hatred and hell, but he found it comforting that the man doing the talking was his daddy. When they passed the collection plate, he wondered why his family couldn't pocket the money—after all, his father was the man in the pulpit. Now they were moving to a communal farm where there would be no collection plates. Their new home would be full of surprises.

As Greg and his family turned into the dirt drive at Koinonia, children scurried out to greet them like a flock of ducklings, calling, "Here come the Wittkampers!" There seemed to be kids everywhere. Greg liked that; at least he was going to have plenty of playmates. It was the first day of July, a Wednesday afternoon, and the youngest Wittkamper son, David, was turning three. The community welcomed him with a birthday party and a freshly baked white coconut cake. Everyone seemed happy to see another family join the fold. Greg's parents were just as pleased; after years of rejection, they felt like they were finally among kindred souls.

For a boy like Greg, Koinonia looked as fun as an endless summer vacation. There were cows and pigs, tractors and trucks, wide-open pastures and wooded creek bottoms that begged to be explored. His Little Lord Fauntleroy days were behind him, as the matching brown suits went into a closet, rarely to be seen again. Now he was in a place where Huckleberry Finn would have felt at ease, a place where the grown-ups held their own worship services and didn't seem to care whether their children came to Sunday school barefoot. "It felt like we had gone to another planet," he said.

The planet had its perils. As Greg got to know the commune's children, he started hearing stories about run-ins between residents of the farm and some of the locals—things that had happened in church or in town. He was too young to comprehend where the tension came from, but he grasped its consequences as readily as a boy learns not to poke at a nest of rattlesnakes. Some people, it seemed, did not like Koinonia.


When the Wittkampers arrived, Koinonia was barely a decade old and beginning to come into its own as an experiment in Christian community. The farm occupied eleven hundred acres nine miles southwest of Americus, the seat of Sumter County, a history-haunted slice of the Peach State best known as the site of the infamous Andersonville prison camp, where nearly thirteen thousand Union soldiers died of illness, exposure, and starvation during the Civil War. At the heart of the property, facing Georgia Highway 49, sat a cluster of rustic cinder-block and frame buildings that might have passed for a World War II military encampment. About sixty people lived there—mostly ministers and missionaries, their spouses and children—in simple cottages and cramped apartments a short walk from the barns, cornfields, and henhouses where they earned their sustenance. The residents worked together, worshipped together, and ate together every day at noon when they were summoned by a clanging dinner bell. In essence, the Wittkampers were becoming part of a large, extended family of religious dissidents and principled misfits.

The Wittkamper family shortly before they moved to Koinonia:
(from left) Billy, Margaret, David, Greg, Will. Courtesy of Greg Wittkamper

The leader of the fellowship, in fact if not title, was a Southern Baptist minister named Clarence Jordan. He had conceived the community and persuaded most of its members, including Will Wittkamper, to come. It was easy to fall under his sway. Clarence was an imposing fellow who stood six foot two and had a paunch that testified to his love of country cooking. He may have sounded like a typical Baptist preacher, with his down-home drawl and his endless repertoire of parables and Bible verses, usually dispensed with folksy charm and a sparkle in the eye, but this was no Main Street minister. He espoused radical ideas about some of the region's defining verities, a nonconforming worldview that took shape when he was a boy. Greg liked him instantly and felt safe and enlivened in his presence.

Clarence Jordan. Courtesy of Leonard Jordan

Clarence, as even the kids called him, came from a prominent family in Talbotton, a county seat in middle Georgia, where his father ran a bank and a general store. The Jordans (the name rhymes with burden, not the river in the Holy Land) had seven offspring, and Clarence, the middle child, was considered the contrary one. He read. He questioned. He argued. They called him Grump.

His conscience awakened, he explained years later, because of a disparity that troubled him. At the Baptist church the Jordans attended, his Sunday school class sang about Jesus loving the little children of the world, "red and yellow, black and white," but Clarence could see that black people weren't precious in the eyes of most white folks. Walking to and from school every day, he passed the county prison camp, where inmates were shackled and put to work on a chain gang. "I stopped and made friends with them," he recalled. "They were almost all of them black men, but they seemed more alive, more genuinely human, than the people I met in church." One August night when he was twelve, Clarence heard one of the prisoners being whipped. "His agonizing groans woke me up. It nearly tore me to pieces." Even more unsettling was the knowledge that the warden of the chain gang, the man doing the whipping, was a member of the church choir. During a revival that week, he had impressed everyone with his spirited singing of the hymn "Love Lifted Me."

As he neared the end of high school, Clarence considered becoming a lawyer so he could help secure justice for the downtrodden of the South. He changed his mind and enrolled in the agriculture school at the University of Georgia, hoping to improve conditions for the rural poor by promoting scientific farming methods. During his senior year, he decided that an ag degree wasn't enough, that if he really wanted to better the world, he should become a minister. His understanding of what his faith demanded continued to deepen. Clarence had been training as a cavalry officer in the ROTC since he had begun college. Shortly after he graduated in 1933, he reported for summer camp and experienced an epiphany while he was perched atop a horse, sword in hand, poised to attack a formation of cardboard dummies. He couldn't do it. He kept thinking about the fifth chapter of Matthew—"love your enemies"—and resigned his commission on the spot.


On Sale
Mar 31, 2015
Page Count
272 pages

Jim Auchmutey

About the Author

Jim Auchmutey spent twenty-nine years at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a reporter and editor, twice winning the Cox Newspaper chain’s writer of the year award. He first visited Koinonia Farm in 1980 and has written extensively about the commune, the South, race relations, religion, and history. He lives in Georgia.

Learn more about this author