My first talk of 2016 was before the Lawyers Club of Atlanta’s fiction book club -- which was a little confusing since “The Class of ’65” is nonfiction. Apparently, they read a true story every year. Lawyers should never stray too far from facts.
As we were discussing the book in a 38th-floor board room with a gorgeous view of Midtown Atlanta, I brought up a legal angle I thought might interest this group. If it hadn’t been for a federal lawsuit, the narrative I focused on in “Class” might never have happened.
The lawsuit was William Wittkamper et al. v. James Harvey et al. and the School Board of Americus, Ga. Koinonia parents filed the suit in the fall of 1960 when the city school board refused to admit three of their children because they thought having students from the communal farm would produce conflict and unrest at Americus High. Judge William Bootle (above) recognized religious persecution when he saw it and ordered the schools to admit the Koinonia children. Bootle was hanged in effigy in Americus, in part because of that ruling and and in part because of an even more controversial decision he issued a few months later, ordering the University of Georgia desegregated.
The students who entered Americus High that fall were Jan Jordan, Lora Browne and Billy Wittkamper. A year later, Billy’s brother Greg Wittkamper -- my main character -- began at the school. All of them were treated terribly because of their unpopular beliefs, an ordeal which forms the heart of the book . And none of it would have unfolded without the strong arm of the federal judiciary.
Thanks to the Lawyers Club for inviting me, and special thanks to my friend Katie Wood for hosting the event. That’s Katie on the left, with our friend Chris Smith. We've all played poker together for years -- but that's another story.