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.


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.

King Day in a cold place

When I was working on “The Class of ’65,” I adhered to the agreeable weather school of historical research. I tried to visit Americus and Koinonia when it wasn’t so hot and sticky and gnatty in southwest Georgia. That was the best time to go to West Virginia to see the focus of my story, Greg Wittkamper. Until this past weekend, I had never been to the state during the dead of winter.

Then they invited me to be the keynote speaker at the King Day program in Lewisburg. W.Va., a beautiful community near the Greenbrier Resort that bills itself as “the coolest small town in America.” Cool: as in charming and bohemian, not as in single-digit temperatures.

King Day 2016 began, as King Days must, with a walk from a courthouse to a church. It was 9 degrees, with patchy snow and ice from a storm the night before (which is why Greg and I are dressed like Eskimos in the photo). Considering the frigid conditions, a respectable crowd of a couple of hundred made the trek, which was rewarded with bowls of chili and cups of hot chocolate at Lewisburg United Methodist Church.

The service afterwards was multifaceted, to say the least, with hymns, a dance recital, student essay readings, a drum corps and a soaring rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” by a local pastor, Kathie Holland, who pointed out that Mahalia Jackson had performed the song at King’s funeral in 1968.

And then it was my turn. I told the assembly a little about what it had been like to cover the first King Day celebration 30 years ago this month in Atlanta, where I was a reporter for the Journal-Constitution. How no one knew quite what to make of the new holiday, which was marked with a parade and marching bands like it was a wintertime version of July the Fourth. 

Most of my talk centered on the connections between Koinonia and the civil rights movement, both of which were terrorized for their commitment to brotherhood. At the same time King and participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott were being targeted in Alabama, Koinonia was being boycotted, bombed and shot at in Georgia. I read from a letter King sent to Clarence Jordan as the two Baptist ministers were commiserating over what their people had to endure because of their beliefs: “You and the Koinonia Community have been in my prayers continually for the last several months. The injustices and indignities that you are now confronting certainly leave you in trying moments. I hope, however, that you will gain consolation from the fact that in your struggle for freedom and a true Christian community you have cosmic companionship.”

I also spoke of the civil rights movement in Albany and Americus, about Koinonia’s support for it and the involvement of the farm’s young people. Greg attended a good many of the mass meetings at black churches in both cities and took part in several marches. I love the photo below showing Greg in a column of protesters in Americus; he's the only white face in the crowd, near the left. Those Koinonia kids certainly stood out. But Greg was no braver than the others stretched out along the street that day in July 1965.

Thanks to the MLK Day committee in Lewisburg for inviting me to speak (Larry Davis and others) and special thanks to Greg and Libby Johnson (and Sadie) for lodging and feeding me in their beautiful warm home.  

Greg protest - Version 2.jpg

Christmas 1965

Here’s a short Christmas story from “The Class of ’65” that shows something we can be thankful for. It happened 50 years ago this month in a time and place that seems familiar yet so far away.

A group of people from Koinonia drove into Americus to hear a visiting minister speak at the largest church in town, First Baptist. Among them were the community’s leader, Clarence Jordan; a couple of newcomers, Millard and Linda Fuller; and a recent high school graduate soon to leave for college, Greg Wittkamper, the main character of my book. One of Greg’s best friends was with them, too: Collins McGee, a civil rights activist who worked at the farm. Collins (as you can see in this photo with Greg) was black.

As the Koinonia party entered the church, an usher became visibly alarmed at the sight of a black hand reaching for a bulletin.

“Who’s he?” he asked.

“Why, that’s Collins McGee,” Greg answered innocently.

The congregation was singing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” as the Koinonians took their places in a pew. Just as they came to the line about “peace on Earth, goodwill to men,” the usher hurried over and grabbed Collins by the collar. 

“You’ve got to get out of here,” he commanded.

The Koinonians knew First Baptist was segregated, but they had hoped that their interracial group would be allowed to join the worship service in the spirit of the season. Not a chance. They left peacefully. Outside the sanctuary, Clarence looked back at the church and was struck by the way its white columns and floodlit steeple stood out against the vast night sky. He reached for a preacherly metaphor. “I want you to notice,” he told everyone, “how much darkness there is.”

I heard this story from two different participants a quarter of a century apart. Millard Fuller first told it to me in 1987 when I was writing a profile of him and his work as one of the founders (with his wife, Linda) of Habitat for Humanity, the housing ministry that traces its roots to Koinonia. Years later, when I was working on “The Class of ’65,” Greg Wittkamper told me the same anecdote as we were sitting on his deck in the mountains of West Virginia. The experience of being turned away from a Christian church because one of their party was black left a deep impression on them. But they weren’t surprised. Despite the new civil rights laws, that’s the way things were in Americus and many other places in America.  

I’ve thought of this story several times this year as I’ve spoken about my book. A good many people have asked whether I think race relations have really improved since the 1960s. It’s a legitimate question. When every month brings news of confrontations with police and hate crimes and more rancor and distrust, you have to wonder. 

I’m retelling this Christmas tale now because it shows in its small way what things were like not too many years ago. It also shows how things that once seemed immutable do change. That church eventually dropped its restrictive policies when its membership realized that exclusion was not in keeping with their faith.

Clarence was right: There’s a lot of darkness out there. But there’s also light, and most of us, when we search our souls, are drawn to it. For that, we should be grateful.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Peace be with you.

Remembering Joseph

Several people I interviewed for “The Class of ’65” died before it came out. The passing that hit closest to home was that of Joseph Logan,  one of Greg Wittkamper’s classmates, who plays a central role in the story and is pictured on the cover (middle of the second row). Last week marked a year since Joseph died, so I thought I should say something about him and the courage it took for him to speak with me so candidly.

   Joseph was co-captain of the football team during his senior year at Americus High School and was dead set against Greg and Koinonia, the communal farm he came from, because they supported integration. Joseph never attacked Greg, but he was part of the crowd that ambushed him after school in the fall of 1964, and he cheered when one of his football teammates punched him in the face. Joseph never forgot the way Greg literally turned the other cheek and refused to fight back. Years later, teaching a Methodist Sunday school class, Joseph used the scene as a real-life example of the New Testament in action.

   I first spoke with Joseph in 2006 when I did a story about the Class of ’65’s 40th reunion for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We reconnected as I started working on the book. Joseph had been teaching at Enterprise State Community College in Alabama for many years and was in declining health. We spoke over the phone several times and then met for breakfast and lunch whenever he came to Atlanta with his wife, Mary Alice, for treatment of his kidney disease and other ailments. I finally went to visit them in Enterprise, staying with them at their home. I liked them both very much.

   Joseph’s intimations of mortality seemed to put him in a confessional mood. He told me things about his racial attitudes as a young person that I’m not sure he would have divulged a few years earlier. In particular, he told me about a night in the summer of 1965, during a civil rights demonstration in Americus, when he joined a pack of young men who attacked a black man on the street simply because he was black. Joseph didn’t assault the man, but he nearly did, clutching a chunk of concrete, and he regarded this brush with brutality as a turning point in his life. I’ve read that passage from the book numerous times during the talks I’ve given this year. (It starts on Page 144). Sometimes I tear up when I retell the story. 

   I suspect this incident was one of Joseph’s darkest memories. I’m grateful he was brave enough to relive it with me.

   Joseph died late last October as I was going through the editing process. I know he was a little nervous about what I was going to write; truth is, I was a little nervous about what he would think of what I had written. I regret that he didn’t live to see the book published. I sent Mary Alice a copy and she wrote back saying that her husband would have been pleased. That meant a lot to me.

   I should mention the three other people I know of that I interviewed for the book who have passed away: John Perdew, a civil rights activist in Americus who was jailed for months in 1963 for “inciting insurrection”; Vincent Harding, a clergyman and civil rights leader who counted Clarence Jordan and Martin Luther King Jr. among his friends; and Zev Aelony, another activist who was held for inciting insurrection and who lived at Koinonia off and on for several years. Zev was Jewish, but he fit right in with the community of Christians.

   They were remarkable people -- Joseph and the rest of them -- and I was honored to tell part of their stories.