Still hollering, down to her last breath

Published 9:43 am Monday, June 27, 2016

North Carolina lost one of its true natural treasures earlier this week with the passing of Durham civil rights activist Ann Atwater.

Atwater, who was 80 at her death, was probably best known for the relationship she forged with a man who began their association as her enemy, Claiborne Paul “C.P.” Ellis, former head of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan back in the 1970’s. But the scope of her influence goes beyond that, really, all the way back to her beginnings in Columbus County.

A teenage mother, Atwater moved to Durham in the 1950’s to work in the tobacco mills, and she used the circumstances of her poverty to give birth to her activism.

Struggling financially, her fight for justice began at home where she lived in dilapidated housing with no electricity. In the 1960’s, determined to rise above her circumstances, Atwater joined an anti-poverty program, Operation Breakthrough, and thus began her tireless fight for better housing for blacks in Durham. As her reputation grew, Atwater would later lead Durham United for Community Improvement.

In 1971 when Durham schools were first desegregated, that’s when Atwater and Ellis, a former gas station attendant, were thrown together as part of a charrette – several days of meetings to ease tensions in the town. They were enemies, it was said, and even reported that Atwater had once pulled a knife on Ellis and threatened to kill him.

Yet, oddly – even awkwardly – the pair would eventually become friends in the fight to desegregate Durham schools.

First, they came to realize what they had in common: they wanted their children to attend schools free of violence.

“Here we were,” she later wrote, “two people from the far end of the fence, having identical problems, except my being black and him being white …we cussed each other, bawled each other, we even hated each other. But the amazing thing was we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know we had things in common.”

They talked about the hardships of raising children in poverty, and their efforts to emphasize those childrens’ potential being equal to that of middle-class kids.

The two antagonists eventually learned to work together and, to everyone’s astonishment, became good friends. Moving past race, they began to focus on the other issues. Ellis came to realize that blacks weren’t suppressing poor whites, and that the two groups shared problems. Atwater had made Ellis begin to question his way of thinking towards blacks. By the end of the charrette, at a live press conference, Ellis burned his membership card in the KKK.

Atwater and Ellis are featured in Durham’s new Civil Rights History mural, near downtown in the Bull City. There’s even been a book and a play written about the two; and this fall, Taraji P. Henson of “Empire” will portray Ellis in a new motion picture about how Atwater and Ellis’ relationship evolved.

It may be hard for some people believe two divergent personalities came together decades ago in one room to talk about bringing kids together in a classroom – harder still for some folks to imagine that happening in 2016, but that was very much a part of 1970’s reality.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, director of the School for Conversion, was a close friend of Atwater’s in her later years and was by her side when she passed away. He said Atwater’s life lessons could teach folks a lot today.

“She knew people who aren’t supposed to be friends could be friends,” he said. “The legacy she leaves here is a woman who showed us you can love your enemy.”

In 2013, confined to a wheelchair, Atwater said she was still a fighter.

“I’m not running the streets and fighting because I fell and broke my leg and I’m not able to get out, but I can still holler at folks,” Atwater said.

Still hollering … that’s quite an endowment to leave to the world.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.