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Civil-Rights Activist, Ex-Klansman C.P. Ellis
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Civil-Rights Activist, Ex-Klansman C.P. Ellis

Remembrances

Civil-Rights Activist, Ex-Klansman C.P. Ellis

Civil-Rights Activist, Ex-Klansman C.P. Ellis
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Civil rights activist and former Ku Klux Klansman C.P. Ellis has died at age 78. Ann Atwater, a black civil rights activist, talks about her friend. Ellis had a change of heart after a 10-day forum on integration of schools in Durham, N.C. He renounced his Klan membership, became lifelong friends with Atwater and went on to organize black and white labor unions.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

C.P. Ellis was a former grand exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, North Carolina. But in the early 1970s, he had a remarkable change of heart and mind, and he became a civil rights advocate. C.P. Ellis died last week in Durham at the age of 78. His turnabout came through a 10-day community meeting on school desegregation in 1971. He was chosen to chair the meetings, along with his polar opposite, a militant African-American leader of Durham's civil rights movement, Ann Atwater. In an NPR interview in 1996, C.P. Ellis described the hatred he felt toward blacks going in.

(Soundbite of 1996 interview)

Mr. C.P. ELLIS (Civil Rights Advocate): I wanted to make them angry. I didn't like them. I didn't like integration. I didn't like the demonstrations downtown. I didn't like Ann boycotting stores. And she was an effective boycotter, too. She was making progress. I hated her guts.

BLOCK: Ann Atwater joins us from her home in Durham to share her memories of C.P. Ellis.

Ms. Atwater, Mr. Ellis there saying he hated your guts going into these meetings.

Ms. ANN ATWATER (Civil Rights Activist): Yes, he did, and I hated him just as hard as he hated me. And we showed that towards each other up until we went into the ...(unintelligible) a 10-day meeting.

BLOCK: Why would C.P. Ellis have agreed to take part in these meetings, which were all about improving race relations and figuring out a way to integrate the schools?

Ms. ATWATER: Well, some of the people in City Hall was Klansmen as well, and they had him put out there so he could disrupt everything that everybody was trying to do. He was to tear it apart. But to see--as I tell everybody, God had a hand on that because in the meetings C.P. had a machine gun, and he would show it to the city councilmen in the trunk of his car every morning. And when I'd walk up to the school building, I had my white Bible in my hand. So I told C.P. we would see whose God would be the strongest, my God or his God. I always said if they'd said something to me, I was going to knock the hell out of them with my Bible.

BLOCK: Well, what happened in the course of this meeting over 10 days that turned things around in the way that it did?

Ms. ATWATER: Well, in the first five days of the meetings, we had a choir come in, a gospel choir, a church choir--to come in and do some singing. And C.P. was sitting there, and first he started clapping his hands. And he wasn't clapping his hands even along with us; he would clap an odd beat. So I grabbed his hand and trying to show him how to clap along with us at the same time till we learned him how to clap.

And then starting into the next week, we talked to the youth, and we found out that the children was the ones suffering. Me and him was over there mad with each other, but we wasn't getting anything done that the children wanted. And me and him cried at that time, and we began to melt down towards one another.

BLOCK: You know, it seems like such an unlikely transformation. He goes from being a leader of the Ku Klux Klan to being a union organizer for both blacks and whites, a civil right advocate. Do you look back, and does it make sense to you?

Ms. ATWATER: No, it don't when you look back at it. But then if I look back at it through my Bible, through God's work, God had a plan for both of us. And that plan was to put us there to make sure that this school integration would be done peacefully, and that's what happened. It's just a strange thing, but it really happened. And the funny part about it, we stayed friends all these years.

BLOCK: You did?

Ms. ATWATER: Yeah. He stayed in touch with me; I'd call him. If I told him I needed some money, he told me he needed something, we looked after each other. We saw that each other, you know, was making it.

BLOCK: Well, Ann Atwater, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. ATWATER: Well, thank you for talking to me.

BLOCK: Civil rights activist Ann Atwater in Durham, North Carolina. She spoke at C.P. Ellis' funeral on Saturday.

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