The Best of Enemies – Ann Atwater and CP Ellis 1971

R.N. Harris Elementary School - 1520 Cooper St. Durham, NC, 27703

A Ku Klux Klan leader and a civil rights activist becoming best friends? Who would have thought? Certainly not CP Ellis and Ann Atwater, but this is exactly what happened after a meeting was organized to discuss the status of Durham public schools.

CP Ellis was the president of the KKK in Durham and Ann Atwater was a black civil rights leader. They were complete opposites in ideology, race, and ideas about racial rights and power. The only two things they had in common were their low economic status and their power in their respective communities.

In 1971, Ann and CP were thrust together in a charette, “an intense, short-term, problem-solving tool” as organizer Bill Riddick defined it, set in the NC Mutual Life building. The purpose of the meetings was to discuss public school education after a mandatory and controversial desegregation law was passed in Durham in 1970.  Ann and CP were invited to co-chair the meetings and all sides of the community were represented at the charette, it was open to the public.

As the meetings went on, Ann and CP found more in common: their children were getting an inferior education in the newly integrated schools. As CP said, “My kids and her kids both were suffering cause we got turmoil in our schools.” So they decided to work together to try to fix it.

They started the organization, SOS, Save Our Schools, to try to achieve integration peacefully. They created an exhibit in R. N. Harris Elementary School to show the children both sides of the community. They had materials from both the black and white communities but the most controversial piece was a set of KKK robes that CP brought. Their goal was to use education to teach both black and white children about the other community to foster an understanding that they hoped would end the violence and bullying and lead to a better education for both races.

The black children wanted to tear the robe to shreds, but when Ann heard this she told them to read the material instead, to learn and understand where the KKK was coming from. CP was moved by Ann’s action and as he got to know her, he found his attitudes changing. CP tore up his KKK membership card at the final meeting of the charette. This showed that it was possible for people to become more racially inclusive. This alienated CP from the KKK and the rest of the white community, but led to the close friendship with Ann that lasted throughout their lives.

More information:

An Unlikely Friendship by Diane Bloom