With riots and looting destroying large areas of some cities, it would be nice if people could put aside their racial hatred and enmity and try to forge a compromise that would promote peace and prosperity in urban areas, rather than destroying what so many hard-working people have built over years of endeavor.
That may sound preposterous, given the level of antagonism, but it is possible. Just consider the lives of Ann Atwood and C.P. Ellis of Durham, North Carolina. In the early 1970s, they turned their hatred for each other into a pathway for social change to bring about change in the school system and community in general.
The lives of Atwater and Ellis were turned into a highly acclaimed 2011 movie, “The Best of Enemies.” Theirs is a fascinating story.
Atwood was the daughter of a sharecropper who earned five cents per hour for his labor and was a deacon in their church. Ellis was the son of a blue collar Durham worker who became the Exhalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan, one of the most notorious such units in the country.
Atwater was born in 1935 in Hallsboro, North Carolina, one of nine children. She and her siblings worked on nearby farms to help support the family. She was given food through the back door after the white workers had eaten. She was taught that whites were better, and that their needs came before hers. Atwater learned that her lot in life was to take second place.
At age 13, she married French Wilson and they moved to Durham in hopes of finding jobs in the city’s textile or tobacco industries.
In 1950, poor blacks in Durham had to fight both racial issues and class divisions against whites who claimed superiority, and also against wealthier blacks who claimed superiority and did not want to be associated with the lower class.
Her husband struggled with alcoholism and became abusive, so she divorced him and raised her two daughters as a single mother.
Atwater’s description of her life following her divorce provides a clear picture of the depths of the poverty that many Blacks and even some whites endured before America awoke to their plight and started pouring government resources into housing, health care, nutrition, education and other social programs.
Her welfare check was $57 per month, making paying the rent a struggle. Atwater managed to get some domestic work in white homes to survive financially.
She made dresses for her daughters from rice and flour sacks. About the only food she could afford was rice, cabbage and pork fatback.
The faucets in her bathroom were faulty, shooting streams of water across the room. Her children referred to them as Niagara Falls. The roof was full of holes, allowing rain water to drip into the house. The bathtub had fallen through the rotten boards of the floor.
The wiring was so bad that after her electricity was cut off for non-payment, she could stomp on the floor to get the lights to come on. Stomp again, and they would go off. She said the house didn’t need windows because the cracks were so wide she could see everyone on the street.
During a visit to the welfare office to try to get money to pay her back rent, she met Howard Fuller of Operation Breakthrough. She told Fuller of her problems, and he immediately invited her to join the organization, which helped people in poverty find work, get an education and learn to be self sufficient.
From that point on, Atwater’s life began to change. She and Fuller went to her landlord to request upgrades to the house. To their surprise, the landlord readily agreed and made all the necessary repairs.
She soon became a leader in the organization and became an expert on housing policies, welfare regulations, tenant rights and other issues that help those mired in poverty.
In July 1971, with segregation still rampant despite a Supreme Court ruling, with schools in chaos, students fighting and little learning being had, a city councilman called for a series of public meetings. He asked Atwater to co-chair one of the groups with the help of C.P. Ellis, who was then the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan.
By their own accounts, it was hatred at first sight.
Ellis had only an eighth grade education but participated in a program, Past Employment Progress, where he received his high school diploma. He became involved a union and was eventually voted business manager.
Ellis was aware of his poverty and the worn clothes he had to wear.
He became disillusioned with the “American Dream.” Under the pressure of work and trying to provide for a family, he came to hate Blacks and joined the Klan. It wasn’t long until he was named Exalted Grand Cyclops. He also started attending council and school board meetings to oppose civil rights changes.
Although they hated each other at the outset, they nevertheless worked together. More importantly, they talked about the difficulties of raising children in poverty and how their children’s potential was equal to that of middle class children. Slowly, the resentment began to subside.
Ellis began to realize that Blacks were not suppressing poor whites, and that the two groups had shared problems. Atwater had begun to make him think about his attitude toward Blacks.
Atwater and Ellis presented the school board with a list of recommendations from the meetings, including giving students a larger say on education issues by expanding the board to include two students from each of the major racial groups.
They also proposed major changes in the school curriculum, such as more instruction on dealing with racial violence, creation of a group to discuss and resolve problems before they escalated, and an expansion in choices of textbooks to include Black authors.
Ellis came to believe that whites, especially poor whites, could prosper more from the Civil Rights movement than from segregation. Both came to see how they, as poor people, were oppressed and that their children faced many of the same issues. Atwater says that during these times they cried together.
Ellis died of Alzheimer’s disease on Nov. 3, 2005. Ann Atwater delivered the eulogy. She died on June 20, 2016.
Today, the Ann Atwater Freedom Library in the School of Conversion in Durham continues her work of “making surprising friendships possible.”
Two individuals of vastly differing opinions about race came together to lay the basis for productive change in their community. It would be nice if the groups fighting, burning and beating others in the middle of some of our largest cities could stop for just a moment and try to get to know each other. Maybe the spirit of Ann Atwood and C.P. Ellis would prevail. It can be done, and it would certainly be worth a try.