Frigid temperatures did not stop marchers from gathering in downtown Lewisburg to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday.
The crowd was a bit thinner than usual, thanks to the cold, but around 75-100 marchers gathered in front of the courthouse at 11 a.m. Marchers carried signs celebrating the civil rights leader and supporting equality. Pastor Larryetta Ellis of Edgewood Presbyterian Church gave the invocation as she stood on the steps of attorney Paul Detch’s office, across from the courthouse, and Councilperson Beverly White read Mayor John Manchester’s proclamation certifying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week in the city.
Organizer Steve Rutledge energized the crowd with chants of “We are one!” and “Black Lives Matter!” but kept his speech brief before the marchers began their annual walk up the hill to Lewisburg United Methodist Church, where a group of 250 people enjoyed a community luncheon and program.
The program, held in the sanctuary, was full of music and dance, speeches and calls to service. Following a rousing performance of African drumming by members of the Greenbrier Academy for Girls, students from High Rocks Academy spoke out against discrimination of all kinds, and gathered on the stage to sing a song they had written during an overnight at The Hub the previous evening.
Pastor Kathie Holland of New Vision Baptist Church, who humbly told the crowd she was a better pastor than a singer, brought the crowd to their feet after singing two spirituals.
Trillium Performing Arts core artist Henry Hill offered a modern dance filled with emotion as he moved through the aisle of the sanctuary and along the stage, and Greenbrier Episcopal School students Indigo Graves and Maxine Casto (fourth and fifth grade, respectively) read their award-winning essays on equality and King’s assertion that love, not hate, redeems and unites communities.
The program’s keynote speaker was Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jim Auchmutey, whose book, “The Class of ‘65: A Student, A Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness,” explores the role Greg Wittkamper played in the civil rights movement in southwest Georgia in the 1960s.
Whitkamper lives in Sinks Grove with his family, but grew up at Koinonia, a Christian commune in Americus, Georgia. The commune was founded in 1942 and caught the attention of the Ku Klux Klan and other southern Jim Crow conservatives due to Koinonia leader Clarence Jordan’s belief in racial equality and socialist living.
“The mood hardened in 1954,” Auchmutey said, as the U.S. Supreme Court found segregated schools to be unconstitutional, and the Koinonia commune and its members were repeatedly harrassed by Ku Klux Klan members. Koinonia was the target of repeated drive-by shootings, and at one point, their farmers market was bombed.
A decade later, Wittkamper, who attended the nearby Americus High School, was ostracized after he befriended four “token” black students who were integrated into the high school in 1964. “The Class of ‘65” follows Wittkamper’s senior year of high school as he rode to school with the new Black students and was subsequently labeled and attacked as a “race traitor.”
When Auchmutey introduced Wittkamper to the podium, Wittkamper, who is very soft-spoken, said to the audience, “I might cry, and if I do, please cry with me.”
Wittkamper shared stories of being a social outcast at Americus High School in 1964 and how that, and his unusual upbringing at Koinonia, led him to continue to fight in Americus for racial equality. Wittkamper recalled a protest in Americus in 1965, where he and the other protesters were forced to call off a march and take shelter overnight in an area church after a protest-related shooting occurred in another part of town, and, nearby, white counter-protesters lined the streets armed with guns.
“We were all pretty scared,” he said.
Auchmutey commended Wittkamper, and those like him who quietly put their lives and reputations on the line during the civil rights movement, and Monday’s crowd stood in ovation.
Councilmember White wrapped up the program with four poems. The first poem she read, titled “Martin Luther King,” was written by White – the first African American female member of Lewisburg City Council – when she was 16 on the day after King’s assassination. Her final poem, “Parents, What Will You Teach Your Children?” admonished parents to teach their children tolerance, and once again brought the crowd to its feet.
Lewisburg’s Martin Luther King Day march is the largest in the state.