Hamilton Jordan, A Boy from Georgia: Coming of Age in the Segregated South (edited by Kathleen Jordan). Athens, Ga., and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2015.
Jim Auchmutey, The Class of ’65: A Student, A Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness. New York: Public Affairs, 2015.
[NOTE: While teaching History at an Atlanta prep school, I inherited a one-semester, junior-senior course, the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. Based upon my own study of that period, I decided that the course must begin with a substantial unit on “The Age of Jim Crow.” I believed that, without knowledge of the era before what Taylor Branch refers to as the “King Years,” students could not fully grasp what the modern civil rights movement accomplished.
To supplement our main text, Harvard Sitkoff’s The Struggle for Black Equality, and to illuminate the world of “Jim Crow” at ground level, I selected two autobiographies, Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi; and Melton McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South. My students found these first-hand accounts engaging. McLaurin includes a chapter on the allure of interracial sex to white boys (including himself), that could be controversial in some schools; Moody’s book covers both her Jim Crow upbringing and her later civil rights activism, while McLaurin doesn’t go into the civil rights movement in much detail.
Since I retired almost six years ago, I haven’t seen anything better on growing up under Jim Crow, at least from the African American perspective, than Moody’s book, but recently two stories about white boys who came of age during the Jim Crow era have appeared. One is a memoir, by Hamilton Jordan; the other, written by veteran journalist Jim Auchmutey, is about Greg Wittkamper. Although most of you probably recognize Hamilton Jordan’s name, some may be wondering, who in the world is Greg Wittkamper? Read on.]
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Both boys grew up in southwest Georgia, about thirty-five miles apart. Hamilton Jordan, who was three years older, lived a middle-class existence in Albany. His father, Richard, was an insurance agent; his grandfather, Hamilton McWhorter, who lived in Lexington in the northeastern part of the state, was a veteran state legislator and quiet political power who, at least according to family legend, might have been elected Governor had his wife Helen not been Jewish.
Greg Wittkamper grew up at the Koinonia Farm near Plains, where the residents practiced communal living and worked alongside, even ate at the same table with, African Americans. Moreover, a number of residents at Koinonia were, like Greg’s father Will, pacifists who refused to join the military or even to endorse the more militant aspects of American foreign policy during the Cold War. None of these practices endeared them to their neighbors in Americus and Plains, in what would later be referred to as “Jimmy Carter Country.” Perhaps ironically, Jimmy Carter was one of the few locals who continued to purchase produce from Koinonia, at a time when the commune’s residents were regarded by their neighbors as wild-eyed radicals, and, as a result, were harassed with mysterious fires, shootings, and economic boycotts.The prime mover of the communal effort at Koinonia was Clarence Jordan, who became a sort of foster-father to Greg Wittkamper. Clarence Jordan also was Hamilton Jordan’s uncle, but was regarded as the “black sheep” of the Jordan family, because he actually believed in applying the teachings of Christianity to living in community with African Americans. Moreover, some residents of Koinonia went to Albany to support the “Albany Movement” (1961) one of the unsuccessful campaigns of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Koinonia also provided shelter to some civil rights workers active in Albany.
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Both Hamilton Jordan and Greg Wittkamper found themselves crossing the racial “party line” as adolescents.
For Jordan, a turning point came during the “Albany Movement,” when he and his father were stunned to see their long-time housekeeper, Hattie Jackson, among the civil rights demonstrators. Although his father was unsympathetic to Hattie’s joining the marchers, Hamilton was ashamed at how the demonstrators were treated and considered his own reluctance to support them “a moment of moral failure.” (136) The other shoe dropped a few years later, in 1970, when Hamilton’s father Richard drove Hattie Jackson to Atlanta to witness the swearing-in of the president of historically black Albany State University—who attended her church—as a member of the Georgia Pardon and Paroles Board. According to Hamilton Jordan, “that time alone together changed their relationship forever.” Kind of like “Driving Miss Daisy,” though with the races of the passengers reversed. (143)
Jordan became interested in arranging for African American rock bands to perform at white venues in Albany, including a band promoted by Phil Walden in Macon, whose lead singer was—wait for it!—Otis Redding. Jordan’s career as a music promoter came to an inglorious end, through no fault of his own, when Bo Diddley visited an all-black club in south Albany, ran off with the eighteen year-old daughter of a local white doctor, and married her. This episode made booking black bands at white venues in Albany a non-starter, so young Hamilton moved on to other endeavors.
Because of his family’s political connections, Jordan, pursuing a young lady he’d met at the University of Georgia, wangled an internship in Washington, D.C., with Georgia Senator Richard Russell. The highlight of Jordan’s internship was a long-distance view of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in August 1963. His assessment of that event: “[T]he most important result—invaluable, although intangible—was that the movement finally had a face, a leader, a voice.” (204) (A few years later, of course, Hamilton Jordan played a key role in the rise to prominence of Jimmy Carter, first to the governorship of Georgia and ultimately to the presidency of the United States, but that is not a story he relates in this book.)
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Greg Wittkamper had a different set of problems to resolve growing up white in Jim Crow Georgia. His white neighbors in Plains—and Americus—believed that residents at Koinonia Farm cared nothing for the preservation of white, southern culture, probably an accurate diagnosis. Greg and his siblings had to attend public schools in Americus and put up with all sorts of harassment because of Koinonia’s reputation, even before the arrival of the civil rights movement.
Then, in 1964, during his junior year, when a local white official launched a low-key effort to integrate Americus High School, Wittkamper decided to demonstrate solidarity with the four black students chosen to break the racial barrier, riding with them on the first day of school in a limousine provided by a local black funeral home. This brought down upon his head the fury of his white classmates, giving them yet another reason to despise him. They attempted to intimidate Wittkamper, even attacked him physically, over the next two years. For Greg, the difficulties did not stop with his graduation in 1965; he and an African American friend were attacked by angry whites following that ceremony.
By the time he graduated from high school, Greg Wittkamper had had all the fun he could stand in Americus and environs, so he headed off to the New York-based “Friends World Institute,” a Quaker-supported “college” that, Greg admitted, “wasn’t a school as much as an extended field trip.” (155) A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Wittkamper eventually moved to West Virginia, where he became involved in real estate.
And then came the event that brought Greg Wittkamper to the attention of journalist Jim Auchmutey: he received an invitation to attend the Americus High School Class of 1965’s 40th reunion, as well as several letters from classmates apologizing for their conduct towards him during his junior and senior years. After waffling about whether to attend, he decided to go.
The results of Wittkamper’s decision were mixed: some classmates were warm, welcoming, and apologetic, while others snubbed him or grumbled, claiming that, because racism was no more, they wanted to “move on.” Wittkamper sent his classmates a letter after he returned to West Virginia, thanking them for inviting him and for their acceptance of him when he returned, and expressing his willingness to reach out to them in the future.
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Now, is either of these accounts a candidate to replace Melton McLaurin’s Separate Pasts as a supplementary text in a course on the Modern Civil Rights Movement? Probably not. McLaurin, in addition to being an engaging writer, also is a professional historian who ably places his personal story of growing up in the Jim Crow South in the proverbial “larger context.” Neither Jordan nor Auchmutey quite meets this exacting standard.
Hamilton Jordan did not live long enough to produce a full-blown account of growing up in Jim Crow Georgia; he died on May 20, 2008, at the age of 63. His children decided, correctly I believe, that the incomplete memoir he’d been laboring over during his last years was worth publishing, and they set out to whip that manuscript into shape. They did a good job on the whole, though, because of the circumstances of its composition, the story remains incomplete. There are some fine passages in it, especially for someone like me who was almost a contemporary of Jordan’s, but his memoir just sort of ends; there is no real closure.
Greg Wittkamper is fortunate that his story was told by Jim Auchmutey, an experienced journalist, though not a historian. Auchmutey presents a well-rounded story, with Wittkamper at the center, to be sure, but hardly in splendid isolation. Auchmutey also had access to surviving members of the Wittkamper family as well as to some of the classmates who tormented Greg in various ways in 1964-1965 but eventually came to regret what they’d done.
Wittkamper’s Boswell tells their story as well, and does so powerfully. And yet: while race is an important factor in Wittkamper’s story, it’s certainly not the whole of it. To a great extent, he suffered not for his views on race specifically, but because of his association generally with those “crazies” who lived at Koinonia, including his siblings. They were, if not exactly innocent, then, as the Vietnam era term had it, “collateral damage,” in a community caught up in the strains of moving between the present and the future, whether they wished to do so or not.
So, in the end, I guess we come back to the truism that generalizations about a large group of people, in this case white males who grew up in the South during the dying days of Jim Crow, are—or at least should be—based upon the sum total of all the individuals for whom you have information. And that, of course, sets a standard that few historians can meet. Instead, we “dance with one that brung us,” making what use we can of accounts like those bequeathed to us by Jordan and Wittkamper, and, of course, by Melton McLaurin.
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For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)
In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)
Thanks for sharing these reviews. I have read both of the books, and I enjoyed both of them.
In the Class of 1965, I found it challenging that though there was “reconciliation” of a sort between Witkamper and his classmates, the African American students that integrated Americus HS didn’t seem involved in the reunion. The more things change, the more they remain the same…sad to say.
Different subject: have you read John Inscoe’s volume of essays Writing the South through the Self? There is a chapter about coming of age stories involving encounters with race.
Thanks for the comment, Laura. I noticed the same thing you did about Class of 1965, and it sort of underlined my point: Witkamper was shunned by his white classmates initially because of where he lived (that there “farm” full of Commies!); in my view, his decision to side with the African American kids who braved the storm to try to integrate AHS only added to the fury stirred up by his living at Koinonia. And that meant, unfortunately, that whatever reconciliation took place, at least as far as the author tells us, involved Witkamper and his white classmates. Reconciliation of the white members of the Class of ’65 with the handful of black members thus becomes a separate issue, sort of. . . .
No, I have not read John Inscoe’s essay volume on Writing the South Through The Self, though it sounds like I should.