Friday, November 11, 2005
A Fellowship of Suffering
by John Fischer
C.P. Ellis died last week. That wouldn’t have meant anything to me had I not read a story about his life in the Obituary page of the Los Angeles Times. What caught my eye was a picture of an older, gruff white man in a wheelchair opposite a black woman who was smiling and tenderly comforting him. The man was C.P. Ellis, former Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, and the woman was Ann Atwater, civil rights advocate and spokesperson for the desegregation of Durham schools in North Carolina.
These two used to be bitterest of enemies. According to the Times article, Atwater once pulled a knife on Ellis at a Durham City Council meeting, and Ellis brought a machine gun to their first discussion session in 1971. Now not only have they become friends, they have joined together to fight segregation in the schools and the workplaces of their county.
“When I joined the Klan,” Ellis said, “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 these thoughts with us and never get rid of them.”
This relationship is a testimony to the fact that you can, in fact, get rid of these prejudices. What changed things was a growing respect for the other even as they battled, and finally a realization of how much alike they were.
“Ann and I were really thrown together and forced to work together. During those days it became clear to me that she had some of the identical problems that I had.” The article did not elaborate on what those problems were, but they served to teach Ellis that he and Atwater were fighting a common enemy, and could actually gain strength from one another. For Ann, that strength came from her faith. “God had a plan for both of us, for us to get together,” she said, speaking at his funeral.
“What had I spent all my life fighting people like Ann for?” Ellis once said. The answer might be that until he met Ann, he didn’t even know what “people like Ann” were like.
Do you have any enemies? Maybe you should find out what you have in common. I’m thinking of someone right now. It seems impossible, I know, but then, after hearing this story, you have to have hope.
Quotes are taken from:
"C.P. Ellis, 78; Once a Ku Klux Klan Leader, He Became a Civil Rights Activist," by Myrna Oliver, Los Angeles Times, November 9, 2005, page B8.