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

November 09, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

C.P. Ellis, whose startling metamorphosis from Ku Klux Klan officer to civil rights activist was described in the 1996 book "Best of Enemies" and a subsequent documentary, "An Unlikely Friendship," has died. He was 78.

Ellis died Thursday at Durham Regional Hospital in Durham, N.C., of undisclosed causes. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease and used a wheelchair in recent years.

Both Ellis' "enemy" and "friend" of the book and film titles was Ann Atwater, a black advocate of desegregation in Durham.

The event that converted the city's oft-praised "odd couple" from adversaries to allies was a 1971 community discussion session about the violence occurring as Durham tried to integrate its schools. Ellis and Atwater co-chaired the 10 days of 12-hour talks, forging not only the unusual friendship but profoundly changing Ellis' deeply rooted segregationist thinking.

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.

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