At some point in school, at work, or in our communities, many of us are forced to work with someone who is different from or unfamiliar to us, perhaps someone who is a member of a group we have been taught to mistrust or fear. How we choose to respond in this situation can have a powerful impact on ourselves and others.
C. P. Ellis and Ann Atwater faced such a choice. Both of them lived in Durham, North Carolina, in the 1970s. Ellis was known as the leader of the Durham branch of the Ku Klux Klan, a racist hate group. He was born in Durham in 1927, and he grew up, a white man, during the years of segregation in the South. He later recalled:
I was workin’ a bread route. The highest I made one week was seventy-five dollars. The rent on our house was about twelve dollars a week . . .
I left the bread route with fifty dollars in my pocket. I went to the bank and I borrowed four thousand dollars to buy the service station. I worked seven days a week, open and close, and finally had a heart attack. Just about two months before the last payments of that loan. My wife had done the best she could to keep it runnin’. Tryin’ to come out of that hole, I just couldn’t do it.
I really began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I tried to find somebody. I began to blame it on black people. I had to hate somebody. Hatin’ America is hard to do because you can’t see it to hate it. You gotta have somethin’ to look at to hate. The natural person for me to hate would be black people, because my father before me was a member of the Klan. As far as he was concerned, it was the savior of the white people. It was the only organization in the world that would take care of the white people. So I began to admire the Klan.
I got active in the Klan while I was at the service station. Every Monday night, a group of men would come by and buy a Coca-Cola, go back to the car, take a few drinks, and come back and stand around talkin’. I couldn’t help but wonder: Why are these dudes comin’ out every Monday? They said they were with the Klan and have meetings close-by. Would I be interested? Boy, that was an opportunity I really looked forward to! To be part of somethin’. I joined the Klan, went from member to chaplain, from chaplain to vice-president, from vice-president to president. The title is exalted cyclops.
Ellis recalled how he felt the day he took the oath and assumed that leadership role.
After I had taken my oath, there was loud applause goin’ throughout the buildin’, musta been at least four hundred people. For this one little ol’ person. It was a thrilling moment for C. P. Ellis . . .
I can understand why people join extreme right-wing or left-wing groups. They’re in the same boat I was. Shut out. Deep down inside, we want to be part of this great society. Nobody listens, so we join these groups.
Ann Atwater, born in 1935, was an African American woman living in Durham, known mainly for her work as a community activist. She was an advocate for the poor and focused on improving low-income housing and ending discrimination by real-estate companies. Atwater was considered strong and resolute; she “stood up to politicians and Klansmen, who one night stood silently outside her apartment wearing white hoods and robes.”
Ellis and Atwater knew each other from town meetings and had often argued with one another in front of others. When a federal district judge issued a court order for school desegregation in 1970, tensions in Durham increased enormously. To manage the growing conflict, a team of local residents organized a charrette, or a series of collaborative meetings, to help resolve issues that arose from the school desegregation process. Because they were both well known in the community, Ellis and Atwater were nominated by the group to co-lead the charrette.
When Atwater and Ellis began working together, they were not enthusiastic about collaborating. Ann Atwater later remembered,
When a paper called and said I was named cochairman with C. P., I said, No, no. I laid in bed all that night, not sleepin’. The next mornin’, I called back and told them yes, I would serve. I couldn’t lay down and think the paper would print a headline: Blacks were scared of whites.
Ellis went on:
. . . It was impossible. How could I work with her? But after about two or three days, it was in our hands. We had to make it a success. This give me another sense of belongin’, a sense of pride. This helped this inferiority feelin’ I had. A man who has stood up publicly and said he despised black people, all of a sudden he was willin’ to work with ’em. In spite of all my hatred for blacks and Jews and liberals, I accepted the job. Her and I began to reluctantly work together . . . She had as many problems workin’ with me as I had workin’ with her.
One night I called her: “Ann, you and I should have a lot of differences and we got ’em now. But there’s somethin’ laid out here before us, and if it’s gonna be a success, you and I are gonna have to make it one. Can we lay aside some of these feelin’s?” She said: “I’m willing if you are.” I said: “Let’s do it.”
Atwater recalled a similar transformation. In an interview with the Carolina Times, she talked publicly about the partnership:
Mr. Ellis has the same problems with the schools and his children as I do with mine and we now have a chance to do something for them. There certainly is no deep-seated love between Mr. Ellis and myself but this school project brings out problems we all have. We are going to have to lay aside our differences and work together. This will be the first time two completely different sets of philosophies have united to work for this goal of better schools. If we fail, at least no one can say we didn’t try.
When Ellis and Atwater went out into the community, they found that people were not responding to their message. Ellis said:
Some of ’em was cussin’ us out. “You’re sellin’ us out, Ellis, get out of my door. I don’t want to talk to you.” Ann was gettin’ the same response from blacks: “What are you doin’ messin’ with that Klansman?”
One day, Ann and I went back to the school and we sat down. We began to talk and just reflect. Ann said: “My daughter came home cryin’ every day. She said her teacher was makin’ fun of me in front of the other kids.” I said: “Boy, the same thing happened to my kid. White liberal teacher was makin’ fun of Tim Ellis’s father, the Klansman. In front of other peoples. He came home cryin’.” At this point . . . I begin to see, here we are, two people from the far ends of the fence, havin’ identical problems, except hers bein’ black and me bein’ white. From that moment on, I tell ya, that gal and I worked together good. I begin to love the girl, really. . . .
The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, had cussed each other, bawled each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know we had things in common.
We worked at it, with the people who came to these meetings. They talked about racism, sex education, about teachers not bein’ qualified. After seven, eight nights of real intense discussion, these people, who’d never talked to each other before, all of a sudden came up with resolutions. It was really somethin’, you have to be there to get the tone and feelin’ of it.
At that point, I didn’t like integration, but the law says you do this and I’ve got to do what the law says, okay? We said: “Let’s take these resolutions to the school board.” The most disheartening thing I’ve ever faced was the school system refused to implement any one of these resolutions. These were recommendations from the people who pay taxes and pay their salaries. . . .
When the school board refused to hear the committee’s recommendations, Ellis decided to run for the board. He lost the election. Soon after the charrette, both Ellis and Atwater went back to school themselves and earned high-school equivalency degrees. Atwater continued to be a prominent figure in the community as a local activist working against poverty. Ellis disavowed his Klan membership and, while working as a labor union organizer, negotiated Durham’s first paid holiday for the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. The two remained friends, and at C. P. Ellis’s funeral in 2005, Ann Atwater delivered his eulogy. Atwater died in 2016.
Ellis had this to say about how he felt after working with Atwater:
The whole world was openin’ up, and I was learnin’ new truths that I had never learned before. I was beginnin’ to look at a black person, shake hands with him, and see him as a human bein’. I hadn’t got rid of all this stuff. I’ve still got a little bit of it. But somethin’ was happenin’ to me.
It was almost like bein’ born again. It was a new life. I didn’t have these sleepless nights I used to have when I was active in the Klan and slippin’ around at night. I could sleep at night and feel good about it. I’d rather live now than at any other time in history. It’s a challenge.
Atwater also spoke about how the partnership changed her.
I think I accept white people more now than they accept me. Oh, there’s been a change in me like the change in C. P. I used to not talk to white people, now I talk to any of them. I would pass them on the street, they would speak at me, and I wouldn’t say a word. I don’t know if I was afraid ’cause I was taught white was superior. But after I learned, the change was there.
Now I speak and I ask them if I need information. I go in the store and if the clerk’s slow, I call it to their attention. I used to walk in the store and walk out, ’cause I felt they didn’t wanna wait on me. Now if I go somewhere, if I’m right and they’re wrong, I argue the point. I don’t find nobody else. I do it myself.
Writer Osha Gray Davidson, in a book about their lives, says,
One way to read the story of Ann Atwater and C. P. Ellis is as testimony to the transformative power of listening. Listening is, however, only the first step. What comes next is even more difficult: reconciling the new information with what we already know, or think we do. This feat requires what the early-twentieth-century American writer Sinclair Lewis called a “willingness to sift the sanctified lies,” a chore that is hard enough when the “lie” is trivial. Imagine the difficulty of listening to, and then accepting, a truth that overturns everything you believe about the world. And not merely that, but a truth that informs you that “the world is not what you think it is. And, by the way, neither are you.” How many of us have the intellectual courage to consider, let alone accept, the truth when it demands so much?