Longtime activist Joe Becton dies
Joe Becton, the man who brought together two of the most unlikely forces in Durham and fought for justice and equality, died Wednesday.
He was 81.
Mr. Becton served as the director of Durham’s Human Relations Commission when he helped bring together black community activist Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan Exalted Cyclops C.P. Ellis to address school segregation in Durham.
Mr. Becton’s time working with Atwater and Ellis is discussed in Osha Gray Davidson’s book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South”.
In her book, Davidson described Mr. Becton as “head of the commission charged with improving race relations, he’d need all the help he could get. To his way of thinking, the Klansman was the CEO of the poor white community, and Becton needed him on board – to whatever extent that was possible – in the coming fights.”
Edna Becton said that her husband was very close to Atwater and Ellis but was a civil rights fighter.
“He was an advocate for the citizens of Durham,” she said.
William Lawrence has lived next door to the Bectons for 40 years. Over that time, Lawrence got to know Mr. Becton very well.
“He was one of the finest fellows I’ve ever known in my life,” Lawrence said. “He tried his best to ensure equal rights and equal opportunities for everybody.”
Lawrence said that he’ll miss his conversations with Mr. Becton the most.
“He did not talk about people. He talked about issues and problems and how people related to those issues.”
Mr. Becton’s forward-thinking personality and ability to discern the truth were two attributes he was well-known for among many others.
Former Durham Mayor Wib Gulley knew Mr. Becton professionally and noted Mr. Becton’s ability to temper professionalism with meeting the needs of people.
“Everyone I know valued and appreciated his dedication in trying to help our community move beyond discrimination in the late 1980s,” Gulley said. “He was always professional yet warm in all of my dealings.”
Mr. Becton was a charter member of the James E. Shepard Sertoma Club and served as interim director of the John Avery Boys and Girls Club in Durham.
Durham Mayor Bill Bell said that the city has lost a “spokesperson for justice and equality” with Mr. Becton’s death.
“He was very much the professional,” Bell said. “He told it like it was. He didn’t sugarcoat things. But he could be very objective.”
Bell echoed Gulley, noting Mr. Becton’s personable demeanor and ability to work with all people.
Ed Stewart described his longtime friend as “a tremendous guy” and “a tremendous fighter for the things he though were right and just, particularly for minorities.”
“He was quick to make his point known and he would do it very strongly,” Stewart said with a laugh. “He was a good family person, he brought a lot of value to the community in which he lived.”
On Wednesday, Atwater remembered Mr. Becton "like a big brother." Later in life, she was engaged to give speeches, she said, and it was Mr. Becton who acted on her behalf to ensure that she received an honorarium for her effort.
"He told them I had to get my dress cleaned and my hair fixed so I could give the talk," Atwater said. "It worked out fine for me. I just thank him for it and my children thank him for it."