The Klansman Who Became A Civil Rights Leader

“Civil Rights opened the windows. When you open the windows, it does not mean that everybody will get through. We must create our own opportunities.” —Mary Frances Berry

In A Nutshell

C.P. Ellis was an Exalted Grand Cyclops for the Ku Klux Klan—a dyed-in-the-wool racist who hated black people with an intense passion. Ann Atwater was a black activist who battled ferociously for desegregation. In 1971, the two met and became unlikely friends. In Ellis’s own words, he suddenly realized he had “more in common with poor black people than (he) did with rich white ones,” and he tore up his Klan membership.

The Whole Bushel

1971 was a turbulent time for race relations. The Civil Rights Act had passed nearly half a decade before, but progress in some states was still slow, and racism was endemic. The Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers were regularly unleashing violence and Washington was descending into Nixonian paranoia. In short, everything was going nowhere fast.

In the middle of this slow-motion social explosion, the city council in Durham, North Carolina was attempting to reach a compromise on desegregating education. Local Klan leader C.P. Ellis was invited to speak. At first he refused. When he found out Ann Atwater would be there, he changed his mind and went—a machine gun hidden in his clothes.

Ann Atwater was a civil rights activist who’d previously threatened Ellis with a knife during a 1968 council meeting. The two were about as polarized as any two people can be. By their own admission, both wanted nothing more than to murder each other in the most violent way possible. Yet desperate council leaders, looking for a way to reach a compromise on the education issue, impulsively elected them both co-chairs of the week-long meeting.

Over the course of the following week, the two argued and screamed at each other, until Ellis unexpectedly had a revelation. In his own words, he suddenly realized he had “more in common with poor black people than (he) did with rich white ones.” At the end of the meeting, Ellis tore up his Klan membership.

In the years that followed, Ellis underwent the sort of transformation that should by rights only happen in movies. He became a civil rights advocate and leader of a trade union with mostly black members. Ann Atwater became his best friend, and they stayed close until Ellis died in 2005. Food for thought the next time someone tells you that people can never change.

Show Me The Proof

CP Ellis: A reformed white racist, he fought for black workers
An Unlikely Friendship