On the face of it, the story represents preposterous wishful thinking, a tale so unlikely and so sweet that it would challenge the narrative magic of Steven Spielberg. But, as Chapel Hill filmmaker Diane Bloom's short documentary An Unlikely Friendship recounts, it really did happen. That is, at the height of racial tensions in Durham in the early 1970s, a black woman activist did win over and befriend the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan organization. The tale of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis defies all reason, yet in Bloom's film, it seems logical and inevitable.
An Unlikely Friendship recounts an extraordinary 10-day period when Durham leaders convened a charrette, a mediation technique in which representative members of a community gather for intensive brainstorming through a difficult issue. In July of 1971, citizens of Durham--black and white alike--gathered to discuss access to city services and the conditions of the schools. More immediately, there was a court-ordered school desegregation plan to be reckoned with. Atwater was a prominent and aggressive activist (and impoverished welfare mother), so her inclusion in the 10-day charrette was no surprise. Ellis's participation, though more surprising, was a logical choice because he was also well-known to civic leaders as the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham KKK, someone who would show up at city council meetings in his Klan robes and rail against race mixing. Most surprising: this unlikely pair would co-chair the charrette and become friends.
An Unlikely Friendship, which will be shown this Friday, Jan. 16 at Duke's Richard White Auditorium and broadcast on WUNC-TV Monday, Jan. 19, is also a jarring reminder, for viewers too young to remember the segregated South, that tolerant, peaceful communities such as Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh were once part and parcel of the Jim Crow regime. Furthermore, when Atwater and Ellis recount their impoverished and painful childhoods, we're reminded of Jim Crow's usefulness in dividing the poor against each other. Atwater is a native of Columbus County in western North Carolina, the youngest of nine children. Her parents were sharecroppers, growing tobacco and corn and keeping their own pigs and chickens. Atwater's childhood effectively ended at age 14 when, pregnant and married, she and her husband moved to Durham. However, as her life went on, her charisma and penchant for civic affairs was noted by local political organizers who offered her formal training in grassroots activism.
Ellis's upbringing was no more promising than Atwater's. His father worked in a local textile mill and often came home on payday falling-down drunk. Ellis was poor, even by the standards of that era's southern working class, and he was ashamed of it. As a young adult, Ellis went to work at a filling station that was frequented by white supremacists, and eventually he joined their ranks, finally becoming a member of a social organization that gave him a sense of belonging. "I'll never forget the night I was initiated," Ellis recounts in the film. The head Klansman told him, 'I now bestow upon you the title of Klansman. You'll never be alone anymore.' "I was in tears, I was so happy," he says.
In their own ways, Atwater and Ellis transcended their marginal origins and became community leaders. Still, their meeting at the 1971 charrette required the aggressive and risky diplomacy of charrette manager Bill Riddick, an African-American who persuaded the two long-distance antagonists to meet each other. Ellis's instinctive antipathy was matched by Atwater's. "I didn't like him no way--first, because he was white," Atwater says in the film. "I liked him even less because he was calling black people niggers." Still, Riddick persisted and Ellis and Atwater reluctantly agreed to work together in the charrette.
In An Unlikely Friendship, Atwater, Ellis and other participants describe two key emotional turning points that are perhaps best left for the film itself to divulge, but it doesn't reveal too much to say that Ellis publicly burned his KKK membership card at the conclusion of the charrette. Once a hater of blacks, Jews, Catholics and anything else that smacked of liberalism, Ellis later became a labor organizer throughout North Carolina. "I don't know why I hated the AFL-CIO, but somewhere along the way I got it into my head that they were bad just because they were liberals," Ellis says in the film. (Perhaps presidential candidate Howard Dean could take comfort in this film after the thorough roasting he got for suggesting, albeit clumsily, that Democrats reach out to working class, southern white men.)
The South that Atwater and Ellis were so much a product of is one that, thanks to their bravery and others, is a very different place. Accordingly, both have been recognized by local groups recently, in addition to having their relationship memorialized in Bloom's documentary. In November of 2003, Atwater was honored by the Durham NAACP for her lifetime of civil rights activism. Last Monday, Ellis--who is now in failing health and lives in an assisted environment--was presented with an award of appreciation by his longtime employer, Duke University.
An Unlikely Friendship, which was completed in 2002, has been shown in dozens of festivals and other venues around the country, picking up awards in Durango, Colo., Orinda, Calif., and Burlington, Vt. It will be presented as part of Duke University's observance of Martin Luther King Day this Friday, Jan. 16 in the Richard White auditorium on Duke's East Campus, with members of C.P. Ellis' family scheduled to attend. The film starts at 7 p.m. and admission is free. On Monday night, Jan. 19, WUNC-TV will broadcast An Unlikely Friendship at 10:30 p.m.