African History

How ‘Ann Atwater’ a Civil Rights Activist Got A KKK Leader to Join her in the Fight for School Integration

Ann Atwater. Photo: All That’s InterestingAnn Atwater. Photo: All That’s Interesting
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Ann Atwater had been an activist for a few times before she became involved in class desegregation in 1971 and was asked to co-chair a select committee to deal with the difficulty in Durham.

At the time, the Supreme Court had ruled within the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that schools had to be desegregated. Yet, some communities were resisting, especially those within the South.

Labor union AFL-CIO in Durham was given the grant to solve the crisis. A 10-day public meeting called “Save Our Schools” was subsequently put in situ.

C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater in the mid-1990s. Photo Credit: Osha Gray Davidson
Atwater and Ellis. Photo: Jim Thornton/The Herald Sun Collections/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries

 

Atwater was chosen together by the leaders to chair the meeting. She was later told that she would be working with C.P. Ellis, a known racist leader within the Ku Klux Klan.

At that moment, neither of them wanted to figure with one another. Years earlier, the two had met, and it didn’t go down well.

“We were at a gathering downtown together,” Atwater said years later, “and he kept yelling ‘nigger’ this and ‘nigger’ that. I pulled out the knife that I kept in my handbag and opened the blade. As soon as he got on the brink of me, i used to be getting to grab his head from behind and cut him from ear to ear. But my pastor was sitting there and saw me holding the knife. He grabbed my hand and said, ‘Don’t give them the satisfaction.'”
Necessarily, Atwater didn’t want to figure with a Klansman while Ellis was also not willing to think with a Black. But they got along over ten days that they both chaired the committee, after realizing that they had similar life experiences.

The two grew up in poverty and were both hooked into the education of children in their communities.
Atwater was born to sharecroppers on Dominion Day, 1935, in Hillsboro, North Carolina. At age 14, she got pregnant and married the child’s father, French Wilson, but their child died soon after birth.

After two years, they had a daughter. Wilson moved to Durham and asked Atwater and their daughter to hitch him. There, things weren’t as Atwater had expected. The 2 and their daughter shared one room with another man.

They later had another child, but things were tough, and this affected their marriage. They divorced while Wilson got employment in Richmond, Virginia, leaving Atwater to defend herself and, therefore, the two children.

She first worked as a maid before seeking help from social services, which wasn’t sufficient. Living during a dilapidated home together with her children, she soon fell behind on rent. It had been at this moment that she met Howard Fuller, who would ultimately turn her fortunes around.

Fuller helped her fix her home, pay back her debt, and introduced her to Operation Breakthrough, a corporation that worked against economic and racial inequality. Within the mid-1960s, when she joined, Fuller taught her all she needed to understand about community organizing.



Along the way, Atwater served on many committees that worked towards alleviating poverty and erasing inequality. It had been through an equivalent Operation Breakthrough that Atwater was selected to chair the committee on social desegregation in 1971, alongside Ellis.

Ellis, a number one member of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, was raised in Durham, North Carolina, during a white trash family that believed that black people were the explanation for their woes.

Ellis would grow to hate black people, and even when he was called to figure with Atwater, he was initially against the thought of integrating the faculties in Durham.

“He didn’t want [integration],” said Atwater of C.P. Ellis, “and I particularly didn’t want it at the time, on the other hand, I knew we were getting to need to be at one school, and therefore the children had to urge the simplest education they might. I do know if we weren’t going to take care of our youngsters, nobody else would. … He was upset and that I was upset, and he was cussin’ and callin’ all black folks n**gers and that I was callin’ all white folks crackers, and that i couldn’t stand white folks anyway.”

“It wasn’t until way down within the meeting, about the last week of it, is when the youngsters talked to us and got us together sayin’ that they wanted to travel to high school with one another ,” said Atwater, “and then we checked out one another like fools. We’d been arguing about the incorrect thing and hadn’t been doing anything to form the varsity system be better.

“That’s when he and I started gettin’ together. … He decided that I wasn’t as bad. He said, ‘You ain’t as bad as I assumed you were,’ and he started talkin’ to me, and that we started talkin’ back [and forth]. We went within the office and cried because we [had been] doing things the incorrect way simply because one was black and one was white.”

In the end, the two got along and worked towards integrating the faculties. After their work together on the committee, Ellis quit the KKK and even tore up his KKK card publicly, saying he will never return to the Klan.

And albeit some members of Atwater’s community criticized her for working with a Klansman, she remained close with Ellis until his death in 2005.
Ellis’ family asked her to offer the eulogy. Atwater, whose story is told within the historical drama the simplest of Enemies, continued her grassroots activism to add Durham before death in 2016.

Before her death, she touched on her passion for assisting people during a video for college for Conversion. “God gave me favorite the gift to succeed in out and touch, and once I feel that somebody called me for a few help, God wants me to travel on record as saying I attempted .”

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