Past Times

Civil rights activist and Klan leader attacked problem from opposite sides

C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, longtime enemies, were named co-chairs of the charrette S.O.S., “Save Our Schools.”
C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, longtime enemies, were named co-chairs of the charrette S.O.S., “Save Our Schools.” The Herald-Sun Collection, copyright University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries

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Durham Civil rights activist Ann Atwater, who died this week, was known for being one half of “The Best Of Enemies,” the book by Osha Gray Davidson about Atwater and former Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis The pair co-chaired “Save Our Schools,” a 10-day community summit on desegregating Durham schools.

In 1971, the New York Times News Service took a look at the transforming effect the meetings and working with Atwater had on Ellis.

C. P. Ellis didn’t really want to go back to work last Thursday. The president of the Durham chapter of United Klans of America, had other things on his mind when he reported back to duty in the maintenance department at Duke University.

Ellis had just spent 10 days serving as co-chairman of SOS – Save Our Schools – a series of open forums on school problems in Durham.

The other SOS chairman was Mrs. Ann Atwater, acting chairman of the board of directors of United Organizations for Community Improvement, a black neighborhood development corporation in Durham.

“Something has happened to me, and I think it’s for the best,” Ellis told an audience at the final SOS session. …

SOS was a “charrette,” an experiment in intensive community involvement in the identification of problems in a certain area and the formulation of solutions. The word “charette” originally referred to the intensive effort made by architectural students to solve a problem in an allotted time.

The SOS charrette, the first to be conducted on a community-wide basis in the South, was sponsored by the North Carolina AFL-CIO through a grant from the Emergency School Assistance Program, the $1.5 million measure passed by Congress in 1970 to aid school desegregation efforts.

White conservatives tended to stay away from the charrette and Ellis often found himself discussing school programs in the company of blacks and moderate and liberal whites. …

When told of the need for student involvement in administration, Ellis brought up problems in school violence and asked for more direct law enforcement in school cases. When told of the need for more black studies in the curriculum, he demanded “something for the white kid.” When told about white racism, he made charges of black racism.

Ellis achieved good personal relationships with militant black leaders who in turn praised his “honesty” and charged white moderates with “hypocrisy.”

A.J.H. Clement III, chairman of the Durham Black Solidarity Committee, which was formed in 1968 during racial tensions in the city, called the klansman, “Brother Ellis,” during the meetings and occasionally called out to him “right on.”

“That’s my man – he’s honest. You can deal with that,” Clement told other blacks. …

At the final SOS session Tuesday, Ellis said: “I go back to my white community with some of the convictions I came here with. Mrs. Atwater goes back to her community with some of the same convictions she came here with.”

He said: “I used to think that Ann Atwater was the meanest black woman I’d ever seen in my life. … But, you know, her and I got together one day for an hour or two and talked. And she is trying to help her people like I’m trying to help my people.”

Ellis finished up his unusual vacation Thursday. Duke University president Terry Sanford had seen to it personally that Ellis was allowed extra time off from his job in the maintenance department to help chair SOS.

But Thursday it was back to work.

The N&O Aug. 2, 1971

In 1996, N&O writer Ben Stocking told readers of the unusual partnership.

When Ellis was invited to attend, he was more than a little skeptical. But a friend convinced him that if he didn’t go, the voice of whites wouldn’t be heard.

Ellis was appalled to find the moderator of the first planning meeting wearing a dashiki – a loose, brightly colored African garment worn by many black activists in the ’60s. He seethed quietly as he listened to Howard Clement III – then a militant young black lawyer, now a Republican City Council member – as he delivered a discourse on how white racism was destroying the schools. …

As much as they hated each other, Ellis and Atwater were forced to get better acquainted after they agreed to co-chair a committee that was playing a key role in the meetings.

Before they knew it, both were being assailed by their friends as traitors and sellouts. Atwater’s friends were disgusted to see her working with a white supremacist. It turned the stomachs of Ellis’ fellow Klansmen to see him collaborating with a black.

“Both of us were like two people without a country for awhile there,” Ellis recalls.

Gradually, as they commiserated about the trials of serving on the committee, Atwater and Ellis began to realize that they had a lot in common. …

At the end of one charrette session, a black choir sang inspirational gospel tunes. Atwater knew Ellis was coming around when she caught him tapping his foot to the music.

Indeed, the meetings transformed Ellis, who went on to renounce the Klan and become a labor organizer and an admirer of Martin Luther King Jr. The N&O April 12, 1996

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