C.P. Ellis Essay

Obituaries

C.P. Ellis, 78; Once a Ku Klux Klan Leader, He Became a Civil Rights Activist

Ellis and Atwater had been such bitter foes that she once pulled a knife on him at a Durham City Council meeting, and Ellis brought a machine gun to their first 1971 discussion session.

They became such close comrades that, after the meetings, Ellis renounced his position as Exalted Grand Cyclops of the KKK, repudiated segregation and joined Atwater in working to desegregate the Durham school system.

They continued to speak jointly at civil rights seminars and meetings for three decades.

"God had a plan for both of us, for us to get together," Atwater said at Ellis' funeral Saturday.

When Osha Davidson's book was published in 1996, Atwater told the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., that Ellis had become "part of my family" and that she wished others could work together as well as the two of them to end racial strife.

"Ann and I were really thrown together and forced to work together," Ellis told the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., in 1999.

"During those days it became clear to me that she had some of the identical problems that I had, and that I'd suffered like she had and what ... had I spent all my life fighting people like Ann for?"

Claiborne P. Ellis grew up in poverty in Durham, the son of a mill worker. He married at 17 and quickly fathered three children, the youngest born blind and retarded. Despite working two jobs, he could rarely pay his bills.

"I worked my butt off and never seemed to break even. They say abide by the law, go to church, do right and live for the Lord and everything will work out. It didn't work out. It kept gettin' worse and worse. I began to get bitter," Ellis once told columnist and author Studs Terkel.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Terkel interviewed Ellis twice for such books as his 1991 "Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession." The author cited Ellis as one of his "heroes of the day" in an article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times Book Review in 1997.

"So I joined the Klan," Ellis told Terkel. "My father told me it was the savior of the white race. I'll never forget the night when they put the white robe on me and the hood, and I was led down the hall and knelt before the illuminated cross. It was thrilling. Me, this poor little ol' boy Claiborne Ellis, a nobody, felt like somebody."

When Atwater pulled the knife on Ellis, he had just urged the City Council to adopt apartheid-like rules that would, in part, keep blacks off Durham streets.

After Ellis began championing desegregation in 1971, he was ostracized by angry white former colleagues and became such an outcast that he considered suicide. Instead, the redeemed Duke University janitor went back to school, earned his high school diploma and became a successful union organizer -- in a union with a majority of black members.

"These days," he told Terkel, "when you walk into a plant with those black women and butt heads with professional union busters, college men. And we hold our own against them. Now I feel like somebody for real."

Ellis considered his friendship with Atwater proof that anybody can change.

"People have all these preconceived ideas," he told the Herald-Sun in 1999. "When I joined the Klan, I thought every black person in the country was evil and dirty. I just assumed it. We are taught these things as children, and when we get older, we sometimes carry those thoughts with us and never get rid of them."

Ellis' survivors were not immediately known.

MORE:

"Why I Quit the Klan”—An Interview with C. P. Ellis By Studs Terkel

C.P. Ellis was born in 1927 and was 53-years-old at the time of this interview with Studs Terkel. For Terkel, America's foremost oral historian, this remains the most memorable and moving of all the interviews he's done in a career spanning more than seven decades, for C.P. Ellis had once been the exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, N.C. During the interview, Terkel learned that Ellis had been born extremely poor in Durham, North Carolina; had struggled all his life to feed his family; had felt shut out of American society and had joined the Klan to feel like somebody. But later he got involved in a local school issue and reluctantly, gradually, began to work on a committee with a black activist named Ann Atwater, whom he despised at the time. Eventually, after many small epiphanies, he realized that they shared a common concern for their children, common goals as human beings. More surprising still, Ellis became a union organizer for a janitor's union—a long way from his personal philosophical roots. The Ellis-Atwater story is best documented in The Best of Enemies, a book by Osha Gray Davidson that tells of the unlikely friendship that developed between Ann and C.P. Ellis, when they first met in the 1960's. Apparently, their commonalities as oppressed human beings proved far stronger than the racial hatred that initially divided them.


"Why I Quit the Klan”—An Interview with C. P. Ellis By Studs Terkel (1980)
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