Durham’s Civil Rights Heritage
In July 1971 Ann Atwater, militant activist for housing reform, and C. P. Ellis, exalted cyclops of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan, were asked to serve as co-chairs of a series of meetings to address the integration of Durham city schools.
In 1970, the city schools had been ordered to completely integrate, and the idea behind the federally funded series of meetings known as a “charrette” was to help smooth the process. It was open to the entire community with the purpose of working out issues and drawing up a series of recommendations to present to the school board. Atwater, a black woman, and Ellis, a white man, were reluctant to work together because of a history of mutual animosity, but they knew that to have their opinions represented, they must participate.
As C. P. worked alongside Ann, he began to realize that his struggles were her struggles, that his children were encountering the same problems in school as hers, and that their similarities were much greater than their differences. One night when Ann and he were talking, “He looked at her and it was as if he was seeing her for the first time….Mirrored in her face were the same deeply etched lines of work and worry that marked his own face. And suddenly he was crying. The tears came without warning, and once started, he was unable to stop them. Ann was dumbfounded, but she reacted instinctively by reaching out and taking his hand in her own. She tried to comfort him, stroking his hand and murmuring, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay,’ as he sobbed. Then she, too, began to cry.” (From “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South,” p. 276)
Although a year later, in 1972, Ellis claimed his racist views were unchanged, he was actually undergoing a change of heart. It did not come easily or suddenly as he faced ostracism, death threats from the Klan and deep depression that led to a suicide attempt, but slowly, over time, it did come. In 1974 he joined a successful campaign to unionize the maintenance staff at Duke University, where he worked, and was elected chief steward. In 1977 he was elected business manager for the union in a race against a black opponent — a race in which 80 percent of the voters were black.
C. P. Ellis retired from 18 years as a full-time union organizer in 1984. When asked what accomplishment he was most proud of, he answered without hesitation that it was negotiating Durham’s first paid holiday for Martin Luther King’s birthday. Ann Atwater continued to work for many years to improve conditions for Durham’s low-income black community. The friendship she and C. P. Ellis established endured until his death in 2005.