Sacred ground

Many people don’t know that Jesus was born in Gainesville, Ga.

When I spoke about “The Class of ’65” earlier this week at the Cresswind community in Gainesville, I began my talk with this unusual bit of latter-day biblical scholarship. It comes, of course, from the Cotton Patch gospels, Clarence Jordan’s retelling of the New Testament in the Southern vernacular. Jordan co-founded Koinonia, where my story is set, so it seemed fitting that I tell my listeners we were on sacred ground.

In the Cotton Patch version, Mary and Joseph are headed to Gainesville to see about a tax matter when Mary goes into labor pains. The couple pull over at the Dixie Delite Motor Lodge, but there aren’t any rooms, so they take shelter in an abandoned trailer out back. The baby is born, swaddled in a comforter, and laid in an apple crate.

This was my first talk since November. I’ve been very busy the past few months finishing my next book, a history of barbecue for the University of Georgia Press. As I took the podium, I was afraid that I’d start blathering about wet ribs vs. dry ribs, but I needn’t have worried: I fell back into Koinonia and Americus High and Greg Wittkamper and his classmates like I’d never left them. 

It was a great audience: about 70 people representing the dozen or so book clubs that meet regularly at Cresswind. One of them, a group of men, call themselves the Curmudgeons. If I were writing a Cotton Patch translation of the New Testament, I would definitely include Paul’s Epistle to the Curmudgeons.

Many thanks to Wilson and Kris Golden (seen in the photo with Pam and me) for inviting us to Cresswind for a lovely evening.


Finding forgiveness in God's country

When I was working on “The Class of ’65,” I learned about Al and Carol Henry, an outcast minister and his wife who moved to Koinonia with their family in 1965, the year Greg Wittkamper graduated from Americus High. I later heard that their youngest daughter, Cindy Henry McMahon, had completed a memoir about her family’s colorful and painful journey, “Fresh Water from Old Wells.” I had the pleasure of meeting Cindy last weekend at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, near Asheville, where we both made presentations and then did a program together. I’d like to tell you a little about her story.

Cindy was born in 1966 at Koinonia, a year after her father lost his pastorate in Birmingham because he had participated in the Selma voting rights march and other civil rights activism. The family came to Koinonia to lick its wounds and restore its spirit. Things didn’t quite work out that way. While they were living at the farm, Cindy’s father began to show signs of bipolar disorder. He became violent toward their mother and eventually abandoned the family to become something of a hobo. Carol and her daughters scraped by in Atlanta and then settled in Celo, a Quaker community in the shadow of Mount Mitchell, N.C., where they finally found peace and acceptance.

In our joint session, Cindy and I talked about the themes of forgiveness in our books: how she had to come to terms with her father, how Greg reconciled with the classmates who had shunned and harassed him in high school. Forgiveness, we agreed, does not mean forgetting or pretending that some wrong never happened. It’s something you do for you. Anger, Cindy said, paraphrasing a Buddhist proverb, is like a hot coal you clutch in your hand. It burns no one but yourself. Forgiveness is the act of putting down that stone and moving on.

I’ve done numerous talks and book festivals since “The Class of ’65” came out; this was one of the most meaningful. Thanks to Lucy Doll, Kathy Weisfeld and everyone with the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival for including me in your lovely event. Thanks to Cindy for sharing the stage and for writing such a fine memoir (available from Mercer University Press). And special thanks to her big sister Nancy Raskin (shown in the photo behind Cindy and me) for facilitating the whole thing and for taking such good care of Pam and me at the Celo Inn, which she runs with her husband, Randy. The scenery was wonderful, the conversation was lively, the coffee was good and strong -- who could ask for anything more?


Has it really been a year?

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.

Conrad Browne, 1919-2016

One of Koinonia’s early stalwarts and an important figure in my book, “The Class of ’65,” has died: Conrad Browne. He was 96 and lived in Warwick, Rhode Island.

Con Browne was a Baptist minister fresh out of the University of Chicago when he heard Clarence Jordan speak about Koinonia at a conference. He was so captivated that he persuaded his wife to move to south Georgia in 1949 to become part of the communal farm, even though he knew nothing about tending chickens or growing crops.

Con was one of the leaders of Koinonia during the years when it was boycotted and terrorized for its belief in racial brotherhood. He was in charge of the egg delivery route and saw firsthand how local businesses were boycotting the farm. During the height of violence against the community -- the drive-by shootings and bombings -- Con was attacked in Americus by a man who bashed him in the face simply because he was from Koinonia. The sheriff responded by charging Con, still bruised and bleeding, with a traffic offense.

I flew to Rhode Island to meet Con in 2007, joined by Greg Wittkamper, my main character. In our two days of interviews, I could tell how much affection they had for each other. Greg regarded him as a surrogate father and confided later that it was Connie (as he called him) who had told him about the birds and the bees. As we sat in his home on Narragansett Bay, I asked Con why his family had left Koinonia in 1963. “Do I have to?” he said with a pained expression. The farm was hurting economically and could no longer support very many residents, he explained, and the adults decided that the Brownes should go. Con took a job as associate director of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, the place where Rosa Parks had received training in nonviolent resistance. It was a worthy post, but you could tell that it still hurt him after all those years to think about leaving a place he loved so dearly.

My deepest condolences to Con’s wife, Cay, and to his four surviving children, three of whom (Lora, Charles and John) appear in “The Class of ’65.” Conrad Browne was a good man who practiced his faith even when it was dangerous to do so. May his soul know eternal peace.