The story of Ann Atwater and Claiborne Paul (C. P.) Ellis is beautifully told in Osha Gray Davidson’s book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. Atwater, a domestic worker whose parents were sharecroppers, was a civil rights activist in Durham, North Carolina. Ellis, the son of a millhand, was a janitor at Duke University and a local Klan leader. In 1971, after battling each other for years, Atwater and Ellis ended up co-chairing a ten-day public forum—a “charrette,” as it was called—that brought together black and white community members to address problems in Durham’s public schools. It was a fraught process.
Ellis and Atwater couldn’t stand each other. To Atwater, Ellis was an ignorant racist cracker. To Ellis, Atwater was a mean, loudmouthed black woman who was forever blaming white people for her problems. Despite their mutual antipathy, they joined the forum steering committee to represent their racial communities and ensure that the other did not participate unopposed. Ellis and Atwater were nominated to co-chair the charrette on the grounds that its leaders should represent different points of view. Both reluctantly agreed.
When news of the co-chairing arrangement was announced, Ellis and Atwater were rebuked by their friends. Some members of the Klan called Ellis a race traitor and threatened to kill him. Atwater’s people berated her for agreeing to work with an avowed white supremacist.
During the planning stages, Ellis…