Ann Atwater is a beauty. She is an older woman-a commanding presence, extremely spiritual & religious, a love and lovely- a beauty. She radiates all the positive attributes of anyone years younger-her body is failing her a bit-but she rolls with it-As she says she has done with her life and her chosen life's work. Ann is a civil rights activist-a noted name in the racially charged city of Durham North Carolina in the 1970's. In fact-Ann Atwater is still a force, a name to be feared- she got things done, and gets things done still. She says she could weild an umbrella, barracade a committee room-saying all she had to do was sit just inside the door because she was a big woman.
Ann is black-her best friend was C.P. Ellis-once Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan-now deceased. Ann spoke at Ellis' funeral and sat with the Ellis family. A ten day immersion about segregation and the lid it was blowing off the Durham community- brought these two unlikely people together.
A 2005 film and a book explore the friendship of the pair and Ann shared the film and her words with a group of 30 people- on Monday evening in a room at the Senior Center in my small town in Person County. She sees beauty in the faces of black and white when they come together. She believes in faith-this is her overriding message-It will take you anywhere. She believes in family-she has raised her own and has mothered much of Durham. Ann began her activism because she believed. She believed in the promise of food and shelter for her own when she was at her lowest- this was her motivation for becoming an activist- family first. This message resonates in everything Ann speaks of.
Ann was the daughter of a sharecropper, entering the back door of the white family's home to take leftovers home. They had the first bites-she the leftovers. They had the first word-she didn't have a voice. This was Ann's world. Pregnant at 14-her father insisted the man marry his little girl and she married and began cleaning houses for $3.00 a day after moving to Durham North Carolina. In the parallel universe of Durham-C.P. Ellis was struggling as an attendant and then gas station owner. He had financial problems. They were both in the same boat- so to speak-& they swam out in different directions. C.P. Ellis was seduced by, embraced by and indoctrinated by the Klan-KKK. Ann became a voice for the poor-and she spoke truth to power-She was one of them.
C.P. Ellis was already aware of Ann Atwater-according to him- She was everywhere-they (the Klan) were talking and she was on the move-getting things done-showing up at city and county meetings, doing whatever it took to get her message out there. When the 1971 segregation issue reached it's peak in Durham- a 10 day meeting with Atwater and Ellis co-chairing changed the course of their lives. The goal of the meeting was to bring the whole community together to try to solve the problem. In the film, Ann admits she hated Ellis & the feeling was mutual. Neither wanted to co chair-but neither could refuse-less they would look bad, & they would.
They argued. They argued. During the 10 day "charrette" the two realized their children were suffering and the two were afraid for them. Both wanted the same-a better life for their children. They had argued out of fear. Both were poor-the were really in the same boat- they began to unite, to steer a boat together. They wept. The last night of the 10 day session- Ellis held up his Klan membership card and denounced the Klan-saying if schools would be better by tearing up his card- He would do so. In the 2005 film, Ellis said those one time friends never spoke to him again.
Ellis went on to organize labor for black and white. Ann Atwater continues to do her work and shine her light. Ann believes that Barack Obama is the man for the times. She believes he is called.
Ironically- tomorrow in a neighboring county, elections of the school board members will perhaps determine the future of racial diversity in schools-in other words-the policy of segregation may return.
Ann Atwater's words of wisdom-
Parents should take back their children. Discipline them."Spare the rod and spoil the child."
Always get up earlier than the competition. Stay ahead of the game.
Start at the top of the heap-take your concerns and complaints to the Boss, the Mayor,-whoever that may be.
Love and Faith bring people together. Meeting one on one about any greivance is the beginning of resolving the problem.
Our Fears are likely the Fears of Our foes.
Put your Faith in God.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you-Her life's philosophy.
The KKK lives on in North Carolina. But so do many C.P. Ellises and Ann Atwaters- and that is why there is so much HOPE.
about Ann Atwater here
about the film here "an unlikely friendship"
an interview with C.P. Ellis here
order the book here
PERSON COUNTY FOR CHANGE FORMED IN 2008 AS A GRASSROOTS VOLUNTEER GROUP OF PERSON COUNTY CITIZENS. OUR EFFORTS INCLUDE, ASSISTING WITH VOTER REGISTRATION, CREATING AWARENESS ABOUT EARLY VOTING OPPORTUNITIES FOR PERSON COUNTY CITIZENS, EDUCATING AND SUPPORTING COMMUNITY ISSUES FOR GROWTH IN PERSON COUNTY. OUR FALL PROJECT IS PROVIDING A THANKSGIVING MEAL FOR THOSE IN NEED.