Do you know the names Ann Atwater, CP Ellis, and Howard Fuller? I didn’t until I read the book “The Best of Enemies,” by Osha Gray Davidson. The book chronicles racial relations in Durham, North Carolina in the 1960’s. I heard about the story of CP Ellis and Ann Atwater during this year’s pastors’ conference when Dr. Tony Evans used their story as a sermon illustration. I decided to research the story and found Davidson’s book. I’ll give a summary and then three strengths and three weaknesses of Davidson’s work.
During the first half of the 20th century, Durham, North Carolina was known as a progressive jewel of the south which had great race relations. This, of course, was not true. Durham did boast a class of black elites which was more than most southern cities, but the living conditions for the lower class black population were just as squalid and unfair as other Southern cities. The book chronicles the rise of both Ann Atwater, a poor, single black mother and CP Ellis, a poor white man who found a sense of purpose in the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He would eventually become The Exalted Cyclops of the Durham chapter. Ellis and Atwater clashed at many city meetings and became bitter enemies. In 1971 the Durham schools were forced to integrate and this caused considerable turmoil. A man named Bill Riddick came to town and suggested the city hold what is called a charrette. A charrette is an intense meeting over several days, in Durham’s case 10 days, where an entire community is invited to come together to solve a particular problem. The charrette began by naming a steering committee. Guess which two people were elected to chair the steering committee. Ann Atwater was not even in attendance when she was elected a co-chairwoman of the steering committee and her fellow chairman was none other than her worst enemy, CP Ellis.
During the meetings, Atwater and Ellis found that poor black families and poor white families struggled with the same problems. Ellis came to believe that blacks weren’t what keeping poor whites impoverished, but the ruling elites, both black and white. There’s a moving scene in chapter 13 which describes Ellis and Atwater talking alone in the auditorium when reality finally poured in on Ellis and he began to cry. The charrette ended with Ellis renouncing his membership in the Klan and reportedly tearing up his klan membership card in front of the community.
Ellis and Atwater became lifelong friends, and when he died in 2005, Atwater delivered a eulogy at his funeral. The introduction includes a story about Ann coming to the funeral home before CP’s service, and, while sitting there was asked to leave by a white man. She finally stated that CP was her brother.
- Davidson does a remarkable job of setting the scene for the charrette. He plows through a century of racial history in Durham and relates the events in Durham that coincided with the larger national struggle regarding race relations.
- Davidson gives equal pages to both the histories of Ellis and Atwater. Davidson is a career journalist and when I began reading the book, I assumed he would major on Atwater’s story, but his work is non-biased and fair. He notes the high price Ellis paid for his actions during and after the charrette.
- His character descriptions of Atwater, Ellis, and other minor characters are moving. I felt as though I could close my eyes and hear Atwater or Ellis talking with me.
- Davidson only devotes two chapters to the seminal event, the charrette. He spends 11 chapters covering background material, but only two chapters dealing with the event that shaped this unusual friendship. I would like to hear more about the charrette itself.
- He ends the book with a retelling of Ellis’ suicide attempt in 1972. and the psychological price he paid for his actions. I would like to have known more about the friendship that developed after the charrette, but so much time was devoted to background material that a detailed description of their friendship would have made the book very lengthy.
- This may not be considered a weakness, but for a novice in black history, such as myself, Davidson includes the action of too many activist groups. I was difficult to keep up with who belonged to which group and which groups were militant and which were peaceful and so on.
What I learned
What does this have to do with the Southern Baptist Convention and SBC Voices in 2018? We’re having our own struggles with diversity and race relations. I learned a lot about the history of race relations, and I learned about some influential people that many of us have never heard of. Incidentally, I wonder if our own Dwight McKissic is related to the Floyd McKissic mentioned in this book? I learned that there’s a lot I don’t know about a critical period in our nation’s history which still affects us today. Before we go patting ourselves on the back for including minorities in leadership roles, we would all do well to read the story of Ellis and Atwater and remember that there are men like CP Ellis who paid a high price for doing what was right. Are we willing to pay that price?