In Atlanta journalist Jim Auchmutey’s first book, the Americus High class of ’65 confronts its racist past

“The Class of ’65” centers on Greg Wittkamper, who openly supported the first black students enrolled after desegregation
Wittkamper at a 1964 Georgia Council on Human Relations event
Wittkamper at a 1964 Georgia Council on Human Relations event

Photograph courtesy of Greg Wittkamper

For nearly three decades, Jim Auchmutey carved out an enviable beat at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writing richly detailed features about race, religion, history, and food—all of which seemed to inform an overarching narrative of what it means to be Southern. In 2006 he covered a story about a high school reunion that has now become the subject of his first book, “The Class of ’65: A Student, a Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness” (Perseus/PublicAffairs). The book centers on Greg Wittkamper, who grew up in the Christian commune of Koinonia, just a few miles from downtown Americus. Witt-kamper was an immediate outcast when he started high school in 1961. And in his senior year, the first year of desegregation, he openly supported the few black students who enrolled, eventually becoming nearly as persecuted as they were. Forty-one years after graduation, though, something remarkable happened. White classmates who had harassed and shunned him tracked him down in West Virginia, writing heartfelt letters asking him to come back to Georgia for a school reunion. This is a deeply moving story of reconciliation, redemption, and the infinite capacity for change told with unflinching honesty by Wittkamper and four other members of the class of 1965. Several of the classmates ultimately left Americus and broadened their horizons, Auchmutey says. “I don’t think you always have to physically get away in order to change. But I think you have to get away in your mindset.”

Auchmutey on…

Blank white book w/pathA good story
When I first reported on the reunion, I knew it was special. I probably got more reaction to it than any story I ever wrote at the AJC that didn’t involve cats.

The ending is what gives people hope. You can change. And people can heal and become better.

Leading by example
A teacher, Gladys Crabb, could see what was happening. But she knew that these young people who were heckling Greg—or standing by—had some potential and some good in them. She knew she couldn’t just preach; she had to lead them.

On the calendar On March 31 Jim Auchmutey reads at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue appeared under the headline “Class Reunion.”