Civil rights activist Ann Atwater, a sharecropper’s daughter who helped shape Durham’s history, died Monday at Duke Hospital. She was 80.
Atwater helped organize poor African-Americans and give them a voice. She set up neighborhood councils, organized marches and stood up to politicians and Klansmen, who one night stood silently outside her apartment wearing white hoods and robes.
Atwater is best known for becoming friends with Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis in the 1970s after they were appointed to lead community meetings on desegregating Durham schools.
In a 2013 column for The Durham News, Atwater wrote how she had almost killed Ellis a couple of years before those meetings, pulling a knife from her handbag at an event downtown where he kept “yelling n----- this and n----- that.”
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“As soon as he got close to me, I was going to grab his head from behind and cut him from ear to ear,” she wrote.
But her pastor, she said, grabbed her hand and said “Don’t give them the satisfaction.”
During 10 days of “Save Our Schools” meetings, Atwater wrote, “The blinders came off and we both saw that our fighting one another wasn’t doing anything to help the children.
“We didn’t become friends because we wanted to. What happened, really, was we saw how much we had in common. Then we couldn’t imagine not being friends.”
On the last day of the meetings, Ellis ripped up his Klan membership card in front of a crowd.
It has been reported that their story will be brought to the big screen, with Taraji P. Henson of “Empire” playing Atwater, in “The Best of Enemies,” a movie written by “The Hunger Games” producer Robin Bissell.
The movie is based on “The Best Of Enemies: Race And Redemption In The New South,” a book by Osha Gray Davidson. A play also was written by Mark St. Germain. The friendship was also the subject of a documentary “An Unlikely Friendship,” produced and directed by Diane Bloom.
But Atwater’s importance goes deeper, said Howard Fuller, a former Operation Breakthrough organizer and now a professor of education at Marquette University in Wisconsin.
“I personally don’t think that was the crucial part of her legacy at all,” he said.
Atwater was born in 1935, the ninth child of sharecroppers in Columbus County. Her mother died when Ann was 6.
She moved to Durham in 1953, following a husband who soon left her with two children. About 1965, Fuller knocked on Atwater’s door.
They discussed organizing rent strikes to force landlords to improve housing, he said.
At the time, black leaders were from the middle class. Atwater changed that, Fuller said.
“She became larger than life in a certain sense,” he said. “Ann Atwater is someone who really helped change the history of Durham.”
Atwater was a warrior for African-Americans and the poor, said Durham Mayor Bill Bell.
“She fought hard and stayed the course,” Bell said. “She had her own personal problems, but that still didn’t stop her fighting for what was right.”
When she had an issue she let him know, Bell said. She offered advice when he was on the Board of County Commissioners, navigating a process to merge the city and county school systems in 1992.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove met Atwater in 2003 after coming to Durham. Wilson-Hartgrove is now director of the School for Conversion, which builds relationships among people from different cultures and backgrounds. In October it opened the Ann G. Atwater Freedom Library, a resource for youth and others in the Walltown neighborhood, where Atwater organized in the 1970s.
When Wilson-Hartgrove met Atwater, she had retired on disability from Operation Breakthrough. Atwater and Ellis had been building unlikely coalitions by traveling and sharing their story.
Wilson-Hartgrove asked Atwater to teach him about community work in Durham, he said, and she took him under her wing.
“She would always say, ‘God gave me the gift to reach out and touch,’ ” he said.
“She understood that social problems are essentially about the people they impact, and so she always sought to touch, literally, to touch the people who were affected and to trust them and their knowledge of a problem to find a solution,” he said. “She was not only a great community organizer, and a great mother to this community, she adopted people into her family and cared for them as she would care for her own children.”
Her home, he said, was essentially a community center for people who lost their housing and needed work, furniture and food, Wilson-Hartgrove said. “Her phone was always ringing.”
About 2010, Atwater fell and broke her leg. Wilson-Hartgrove recalls visiting at her bedside about 11:30 a.m., and she already had 64 phone calls.
Atwater would assure people that asking for help said nothing about their worth, he said. And she’d give away anything if someone was in need. Atwater would get an honorarium from a university for giving a talk, he said, and give it away.
“When she didn’t have it, she would just call people and insist that the person needed it,” he said.
Wilson-Hartgrove said funeral arrangements are still being made.