Donna Britt, author of “Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving,” is a former syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.
By Jim Auchmutey
PublicAffairs. 261 pp. $25.99
For typical teenagers, high school isn’t a time for heroism. It’s a time for fitting in. Nobody works harder than teens to seem independent — even while following the crowd more abjectly than at any other time in their lives. When high school students do demonstrate courage and individualism, they’re often met with rejection — or with bullying that’s mutely accepted, even by classmates who abhor it.
Greg Wittkamper wasn’t a typical teenager. In Jim Auchmutey’s “Class of ’65,” he’s an idealist whose upbringing on a Christian commune inspired him to become the only white student to socialize with black youngsters during his Georgia high school’s turbulent desegregation. Already acquainted with the four black students, he proudly rode in the limousine transporting them to their new school as a sign of support. No wonder Wittkamper’s years at Americus High School in Sumter County were a nightmare: Daily he was shoved, hit, spat upon, thrown down the stairs or otherwise brutalized by white classmates, never fighting back or abandoning his black friends.
Wittkamper didn’t see himself as a hero. But decades after graduating, he’d become one to some of his former tormentors. Forty-one years after leaving the scene of his life’s worst experiences, the student once viewed by classmates as “even worse than the black [integrators]” was invited by a dozen of them to their reunion. Accompanying the invitation: poignant letters from four classmates expressing belated admiration for his courage and regret for having witnesed his brutalization without supporting or protecting him.
It’s a great story, ably reported by former Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Auchmutey, and told with humor and grace. Yet as a black person, I wondered: Was this another “white savior” narrative — think of the movies “Mississippi Burning” or “The Help” — celebrating a white person’s bravery for supporting beleaguered blacks while deemphasizing the African Americans who required courage just to survive? Wittkamper was horribly mistreated. So were his black schoolmates. Of the four students who integrated Americus High School, only Robertiena Freeman, who was two years behind Wittkamper, stayed on to graduate; the others were driven away by unceasing bullying and fear of embarrassing the nonviolence movement if they retaliated. The girl whose braininess inspired classmates to call her “that smart little n-----” became a distinguished alumna, serving on the county school board and the chamber of commerce and being appointed by the governor to the state board of human resources, which she later led. Her fellow 1967 graduates never invited her to a single reunion.
The “why” of that troubles me — and “The Class of ’65” doesn’t explore it. Surely a girl who wasn’t cowed by withering rejection for a pigmentation she couldn’t change deserved acknowledgment as much as a boy persecuted for not joining her tormentors. But the more I learned about Wittkamper’s grit, the more I admired him. Courage deserves acknowledgment, no matter what color it’s wrapped in. My predominant “why” became “Why can’t the rest of us be as brave?”
For starters, few people have role models as gutsy as Wittkamper’s. One was Clarence Jordan, the Southern Baptist minister who co-founded the Koinonia collective farm where Wittkamper grew up, now best known as the 1976 birthplace of Habitat for Humanity. As a child, Jordan was baffled by the sight of white churchgoers singing rapturously about Jesus loving all the little children in the world while unrepentantly oppressing their black neighbors. An ROTC-trained cavalry officer who’d quit his commission when he couldn’t reconcile loving his enemies with killing them in battle, he started Koinonia in 1942 with partner Martin England. The 1,100-acre cooperative was dedicated to nonviolence, racial harmony and progressive farming.
Koinonia residents worked hard, delivering eggs, produce and pecans for sale while entertaining themselves with hayrides and Bible readings. County neighbors who first viewed the farm’s racially tolerant members with distrust soon became frankly hostile — even before Koinonia started hosting civil rights activists from across the country in the 1960s. Wittkamper was playing volleyball with friends when loud, successive pops emanated from two approaching cars. Realizing they were being shot at, everyone hit the ground. Koinonia’s market was dynamited, then bombed; residents endured burning crosses, torched outbuildings, boycotts and bullets fired into homes that narrowly missed the occupants. One Koinonia patriarch was beaten by a brass-knuckles-wielding attacker at a traffic light. Hours later, the sheriff tossed the recuperating victim in jail because the car he’d been driving had illegal tags.
The fortitude required by commune adults to stay put and to forgo retaliation was lost on some of their children. Said one: “I thought my father wasn’t man enough to defend us.”
Wittkamper knew better. A swift runner with a powerful upper body from farm work, he daily stifled the yearning to take on attackers he could easily have bested. He also refused the easiest path to all-is-forgiven: sports. Utilizing his strength on the school’s beloved football team could have earned him a break from the bullying. But he had no interest in helping to gridiron glory a school whose male population included youths who’d smacked his face and peed into his locker.
To Auchmutey’s and his own credit, Wittkamper remains relatable despite his superhuman restraint. It’s harder appreciating his white classmates, though their evolution from adversaries to admirers reflects many people’s progression from copycat teens to self-determining adults. Several were uncomfortable witnessing Wittkamper’s mistreatment. But it wasn’t until graduation that one reached out to him. David Morgan — who first suggested inviting the former outcast to the reunion — was surprised to feel grudging admiration at the sight of his despised classmate looking triumphant in his cap and gown. Shaking Wittkamper’s hand, Morgan told him, “I don’t know how you made it, but somehow you did.” It was the only considerate gesture Wittkamper recalls a white student making toward him.
Long after high school, classmate Celia Harvey was still suppressing her long-held sense of bigotry’s wrongness when an encounter at a Tupperware party changed her. The black hostess’s adorably unself-conscious toddler covered Harvey with kisses — melting her heart and forcing her to challenge her prejudices. Homecoming queen Deanie Dudley’s deepening faith made her question the unchristian racism she’d unthinkingly absorbed. In her letter to Wittkamper, she conveyed that she now understood how biogtry occurred — she realized why Christians stood by while the Nazis slaughtered Jews in World War II. “I will never again say, ‘how could the Holocaust have happened?’ ” she wrote. “I’ll never need to ask that again.” Though grieving for every student she’d ostracized, she later admitted, “You’re never done wrestling with [prejudice].”
Heroism is like beauty — in the eye of the beholder. We rarely behold bravery as singular as Wittkamper’s. “Class of ’65” encourages us to see the courage in an act as simple as asking forgiveness in a long-overdue letter.
Or mounting a stage. Late in the book, Freeman reluctantly gives a Black History Month address at the school that never asked her to a reunion. Pressed to speak by her sister — who ironically had become the school’s principal — the Americus High graduate who’d “never been back inside that school, and . . . didn’t want to go then” was surprised when a white teacher unexpectedly strode onstage. Introducing herself as one of Freeman’s former classmates, the teacher told her, “I didn’t do anything to you, but I stood by while others did, and I am so sorry for that.”
Grabbing Freeman’s hand, she then asked her accomplished ex-classmate to join her in singing the school song.