One year ago this week, I took the stage at the Carter Library in Atlanta and gave the first talk about my book “The Class of ’65.” I was nervous because I never expected to look out and see an overflow crowd of 250 people -- an audience that included friends, family, former colleagues and quite a few people who figured in the book. Chief among them was Greg Wittkamper, whose ordeal at Americus High School during the 1960s forms the spine of the story. By the time I invited Greg up to the microphone to talk and answer questions, my stage fright was a thing of the past.
In the year since “Class” was published, I have given scores of talks to civic groups, literary festivals and book clubs. I’ve done so many media interviews that I lose track -- including, most recently, a flurry of radio interviews with NPR affiliates during Black History Month (New York, Washington, Boston, Miami, Minneapolis, Memphis, Birmingham … and many more). The book was well-reviewed by The Washington Post, the AJC, The Christian Century and the Associated Press, whose glowing praise was picked up by more than 100 outlets across the country and in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve been on C-SPAN and excerpted in Salon. Most books don’t get a fraction of this publicity; I can’t complain.
With so much attention, you might think that “The Class of ’65” was destined to become a best-seller. Not exactly. Writing a nonfiction narrative set in the civil rights era is not the surest path to publishing success. The book has sold respectably, but the only time it has made a best-seller list was when it appeared in The New York Times roster of books about Race and Civil Rights last spring. “Class” was No. 11: “also selling.” A sorta best-seller in the NYT -- we take what we can get.
Of course, I didn’t write this book because I thought it was going to sell a million copies. I wrote it because (1) I wanted to learn how to create a nonfiction book, and (2) I believed in the story and wanted it to gain a wider audience. I want people to know about the persecution of Koinonia, that band of Christians who believed in brotherhood and nonviolence when those were dangerous concepts. I want people to know about the civil rights struggle in southwest Georgia, which never gets as much attention as events in Selma and Birmingham. I want people to know about what Greg and the other Koinonia kids endured in high school. Above all, I want people to know about the remarkable reconciliation set into motion by Greg’s classmates, who grew to regret the way he and others had been treated.
A number of readers have told me that without that last element, this book might have been too painful for them to finish. I see their point. Without forgiveness and reconciliation, we have nothing. With them, we have hope.
Thank you so much to all the readers who have opened their hearts to this story. I especially thank Greg and his classmates -- white and black -- who lived this drama and allowed me to tell it. This experience has been so fulfilling. I will continue to do everything I can to help “The Class of ’65” find its audience.