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

How I got to Carnegie Hall

Not the one in New York, but the one in Lewisburg, West Virginia. I was invited to speak at the Lewisburg Literary Festival last weekend because Greg Wittkamper, the hero of “The Class of ’65,” lives nearby. More than 300 people came out to hear me in Carnegie Hall, one of a handful of performing arts centers built more than a century ago with Carnegie money. I have to admit that I was intimidated at first. It’s a theater, essentially, with a full stage and spotlights and a green room full of posters for artists who have played there: Wynton Marsalis, Harry Belafonte, Isaac Stern, Ralph Stanley, etc. After I had spoken for 20 or 25 minutes, I invited Greg on stage for a conversation, and he received a long standing ovation which moved him to tears and pleased me immensely. It was exactly the kind of book debut I had wanted for him in the place he has called home for more than 40 years. The rest of the festival was terrific. Kathryn Stockett was the main speaker and cracked everyone up with her stories about “The Help”; there’s something inherently funny about a woman who looks like a junior leaguer but sometimes has a potty mouth. There was also a Hunter S. Thompson lookalike contest; that’s Gary Godwin in the photo below, one of the contestants, with his wife Sallie, who happen to be Greg’s in-laws. “Why Hunter S. Thompson?” I asked one of the planners. “Hemingway was taken,” he answered. So let me explain that main photo above: Each author was asked to suggest a line from his or her book that captured its essence and could be reproduced in a banner on Lewisburg’s main street. I chose a line from Chapter 8, when Greg is confronted by a menacing group of boys after school who want to see him get his butt kicked. “My God,” he thinks, “am I going to get lynched? Are they going to stone me?” They tell me that they’ll rehang the banner every summer during the literary festival, so I guess I’m part of Lewisburg now -- like the street lamps and the stop signs. I like that.

Local hero

It’s good to see that Greg Wittkamper is finally getting some attention close to home. Greg, the main character in “The Class of ’65,” has spoken at two recent book gatherings near his nest in Sinks Grove, West Virginia. One was a party thrown on his behalf at Salt Sulphur Springs, a historic resort near the Virginia border, and the other was a book club in Lewisburg, a charming town near the famous Greenbrier Resort. (That’s Greg with some of the book club members.) There was a lively discussion about Greg’s plight as a persecuted teenager in Georgia, with one woman suggesting that he would have been better off if he had fought back against the classmates who were bullying him at Americus High for his religious and racial beliefs. Greg respectfully disagreed. As the author of the book, I’m with Greg on this one; it would have been a very different story if he had taken a swing at his tormentors -- less Gandhi than Rocky. The local attention will continue next weekend when Greg and I speak at the Lewisburg Literary Festival in an arts center called Carnegie Hall.