Joe Becton’s remarkable legacy

Sep. 12, 2013 @ 06:41 PM

Joseph William Anderson Becton Jr. was a tireless worker for justice and human rights, a man whose legacy in Durham is a profound one.

But Mr. Becton, who died Wednesday at the age of 81, may best be remembered for forging one of the most remarkable alliances this town – or any town – has ever seen.

Mr. Becton recruited the exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, a white-working-class spitfire named C. P. Ellis, and a fiery black activist and organizer, Ann Atwater, to a committee charged with easing the way to desegregation in Durham’s public schools.

In the months leading up to their being thrown together on that committee, the two had come to hate each other, often appearing at the same tempestuous meetings in a city riven by disagreement over the demand for civil rights.

Mr. Becton not only enticed the two to serve – he, with the help of charette organizer Bill Riddick, enticed them to co-chair the process.

The group succeeded in helping this city through the tense and difficult – if long overdue – desegregation process. What’s more, Ellis and Atwater became not just allies but friends whose bonds remained strong until Ellis’s death decades later.

Atwater was among those who mourned Mr. Becton’s passing this week. She remembered him as a “big brother” who in the years following the charette process ensured she was treated fairly and paid for the many speaking engagements to which she was asked.

There was far more to Mr. Becton’s life, of course, but his insight about Ellis and Atwater, in his role as head of the then-new Durham Human Relations Commission, was a hallmark of his long service to this community.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell called him a “spokesperson for justice and equality.” Former Mayor Wib Gulley remembered that he was “always professional yet warm in all of my dealings.”

He recalled Mr. Becton’s contributions long after the desegregation efforts of the early 1970s, during Gulley’s time as Durham’s mayor. “Everyone I know valued and appreciated his dedication in trying to help our community move beyond discrimination in the late 1980s,” Gulley said. 

Mr. Becton is one of a thinning generation of African American leaders who came of age in a rigidly segregated era, and whose courage and persistence over decades paved the way for the breakthroughs finally in the 1960s and 1970s as Jim Crow laws and segregated schools, buses, rest rooms, movie theaters were abolished.

Perhaps one of the best epitaphs came from his long-time neighbor, William Lawrence, who said:

“He was one of the finest fellows I’ve ever known in my life. He tried his best to ensure equal rights and equal opportunities for everybody.”

That is a gracious summary of a life and service for which this community is grateful and indebted.