“The Best of Enemies”

December 2, 2012

ANN ATWATER and C.P. ELLIS

ANN ATWATER and C.P. ELLIS

During a group discussion in our parish last month, we touched on the question of whether anyone is beyond redemption. We had in mind folks like the terrorists who carry out mass murders and suicide missions for what they perceive to be good or necessary causes. The question might have answered itself if any of us that night had thought of C.P. Ellis. I, for one, had never heard of him.

More recently, I learned about Ellis while I was writing about a play by Mark St. Germain entitled “The Best of Enemies.” The play, in turn, is based on a book by that title, written by Osha Gray Davidson. The enemies were Ellis, who in 1971 was the grand cyclops of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, North Carolina, and Ann Atwater, who was a black civil rights activist in the same city.

ANN ATWATER

ANN ATWATER

Durham was late coming to the school desegregation party, and a community organizer named Bill Riddick arrived in town to get a public dialogue going. He proposed to conduct a series of town meetings, and he chose Atwater and Ellis — who couldn’t stand the sight of each other — as co-chairs. As the process unfolded, the unlikely pair gradually realized that as economically marginalized members of the community, and as parents who were concerned about the quality of their children’s education, they had more in common than they had thought. The experience also inspired Ellis to examine the reasons for his membership in the Klan. Ultimately, Ellis quit the Klan by tearing up his membership card at a public gathering; as a result, he was ostracized by his former friends and threatened with death.

C.P. ELLIS

C.P. Ellis

Ellis became a union leader, representing constituencies of mostly black workers. He and Atwater were friends until his death in 2005.

Mark St. Germain’s play was introduced at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts and is currently on stage at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.

You can read Studs Terkel’s interview with Ellis, in which Ellis talks about the reasons for his membership in the Klan and describes his encounter with Ann Atwater, by clicking THIS LINK.

AISHA HINDS as Ann Atwater and JOHN BEDFORD LLOYD as C.P. Ellis in Mark St. Germain's play, "The Best of Enemies"

AISHA HINDS as Ann Atwater and JOHN BEDFORD LLOYD as C.P. Ellis in Mark St. Germain’s play, “The Best of Enemies”