1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I've never not been interested in history. I grew up in Atlanta and started elementary school during the Civil War centennial years, which coincided with the height of the civil rights movement. Atlanta was at the center of both of these epochs. I wanted to know why my home town had been conquered and largely destroyed during war, and why all these people were marching in the streets and willingly going to jail. I didn't understand until later that they were part of the same story. In addition, my father was a Naval officer in the Pacific during World War II and participated in a dozen landings, culminating in Okinawa. So as you can see, I felt personally connected to three of the biggest events in American history: the Civil War, the civil rights movement and WW2.
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
History haunted me from an early age. When I was a boy and the family would be driving somewhere in Georgia, we'd pass a history marker and I'd yell from the back seat, "History sign!" and make us pull over so I could read it. The knowledge that something significant had happened at that spot was enough to make my skin tingle.
3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
A newsroom like the Journal-Constitution's always has a lot of transients and newcomers in it. I was the guy they asked about local history, the one who took important new hires on tours around town. As often as I not, I wrote about subjects that had to do with our history. To name a few things I wrote about at the AJC: the Leo Frank case, the 1906 Atlanta race riot, Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil War in Georgia, lots about the Confederate battle flag, our Southern food traditions (especially barbecue) -- just about everything I did had to do with history in some way.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
This is so obvious to me that I may have a difficult time explaining it simply. To understand anything, you have to understand what has come before and why things are the way they are. The past is a great teacher.
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I find that we're most curious about the era that came just before we became aware -- the world of our fathers and mothers. My parents grew up on farms in rural Georgia during the Depression. I have always been fascinated by how their lives went from mules and outhouses to cars and postwar suburbs in Atlanta. I'm most interested in the 1930s to the early 1960s, and the enormous changes that a state like Georgia went through during those years. I wrote a lot about Atlanta's postwar boom and about the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and '60s. Again, things that are just beyond my memory. (Well, I do remember seeing "colored" signs when I was very young, but they are a distant image in my mind.)
6. What interested you in the Koinonia community and what makes its story unique?
I heard about Koinonia during my first job out of college, with the Presbyterian Church's denominational magazine, and visited the farm soon thereafter to write a story for The Atlanta Constitution -- my first out-of-town assignment for the newspaper. You could still see the bullet holes in the siding where Klansmen had shot into the farm buildings during the 1950s. I found that sight very moving. I guess I should fill in some background: Most people today, if they know of Koinonia at all, know of it as the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity. Before that, Koinonia was one of the most controversial and embattled religious communities in America. The farm was established in 1942 on the principles of pacifism, communal sharing and racial brotherhood. In the eyes of many locals, that made them draft-dodgers, communists and race-mixers. During the 1950s, the farm was boycotted by local businesses and attacked by nightriders, who vandalized its property, shot at its residents and bombed its produce stand twice. It's an amazing story of persecution and perseverance. But I didn't know the whole story.
7. Tell us about your book The Class of '65: A Student, a Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness?
The part of the story I didn't know is what happened to the Koinonia children when they entered the public schools of Sumter County. The Class of '65 is about one of those children, Greg Wittkamper, the only Koinonia kid at Americus High the year it admitted a handful of black students (1964). At the beginning of school that year, Greg, who is white, rode to class with three of those students in a black funeral home limousine. He wanted to show his support for them. In the previous three years, the civil rights movement had mobilized in southwest Georgia, in Albany and then Americus, and Greg had been involved in the demonstrations like others from Koinonia. A mob met the funeral home limo with rocks and verbal abuse. For the rest of his senior year, Greg was a treated like a pariah -- a traitor to his race. He was spit on, assaulted, tripped, shoved down stairs. When he picked up his diploma at graduation, his name was booed and he was chased off campus by a group of toughs.
More than 40 years later, some of the white classmates who had stood by while Greg was abused tracked him down in West Virginia, where he had lived for decades, and wrote him beautiful letters apologizing and asking for his forgiveness. Had they really changed or were they just looking for easy absolution as they entered their twilight years? Greg went back to Georgia to find out. What he discovered was inspiring, hopeful and more than a little sad.