The day my bullies apologized: Race, the South and a reconciliation decades in the making

I was beaten for embracing black classmates when my school was integrated in 1964. Decades later an apology arrived


Jim Auchmutey
April 26, 2015 3:59AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "The Class of '65: A Student, a Divided Town and the Long Road to Forgiveness"

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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, n****rs!”

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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.

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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.”

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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?

Excerpted from "The Class of '65: A Student, a Divided Town and the Long Road to Forgiveness" by Jim Auchmutey. Published by Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Book Group. Copyright 2015 by Jim Auchmutey. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Jim Auchmutey

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