Civil rights activist recognized

Thirty years ago, Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan C.P. Ellis was enlisted by a city council member to co-chair a community committee addressing school desegregation problems. Ten days later, he tore up his Klan membership card in front of 1,000 people.

That is the power of friendship.

Ellis's work on the committee landed him in a close alliance with his co-chair, Ann Atwater--one of Durham's most outspoken civil rights activists--and he has been turning heads ever since. Duke recognized Ellis Monday for his work and achievement in racial reconciliation.

A former Duke maintenance employee, Ellis was an active Klan member during a time when Durham was embroiled in racial conflict. "Something was always going on; he had a lot of meetings," said Vickie Lewis, Ellis's daughter. "I worked in a drug store downtown when I was a teenager. I remember one time [when racial tensions were particularly high], he came to pick me up and there was a man in the back with a shotgun. I was so embarrassed. He told me he wanted to make sure I was safe."

Ellis originally got involved at community desegregation meetings in order to voice the concerns of working-class white Durham residents. His involvement led him to be paired with Atwater, an initially troublesome match.

"At first, they hated each other," Lewis said. "He went in thinking that the problems with desegregation were black people's problems but [after spending time with Atwater] he realized it goes both ways. He realized Ann had the same problems he had: children, finances and everything else."

Ellis's abrupt shift and surprising partnership with Atwater has been hailed as a model for reconciliation efforts and has been the subject of two books and a 2002 documentary film, An Unlikely Friendship.

Vice President for Institutional Equity Benjamin Reese said Ellis is sometimes overlooked in celebrating the film's triumph. "Ann Atwater has received a number of awards, and Ellis also deserves recognition," he said.

The private ceremony was held at The Meadows of Oak Grove assisted living center, where the 76-year-old Ellis has resided for the last two years. Reese presented Ellis with a certificate of recognition on behalf of the University.

An Unlikely Friendship, will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday at the Richard White Lecture Hall, followed by a panel discussion including Atwater and the filmmaker Diane Bloom. Reese recommended the film to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Commemoration Committee because of its focus on education and race relations.

"During the Martin Luther King commemoration period, people are thinking about race relations. The film highlights not only race relations but reconciliation between people with very different life experiences," Reese said. "[The film] is a model of bringing together people with very different backgrounds and emphasizes the importance of working together."

Bloom said both Atwater and Ellis were excited about the potential for the film to be used as an educational tool and eager to see the relevant themes from their story translated into contemporary opportunities for social change.


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