C. P. Ellis grew up in the poor white section of Durham, North Carolina, and as a young man joined the Ku Klux Klan. Ann Atwater, a single mother from the poor black part of town, quit her job as a household domestic to join the civil rights fight. During the 1960s, as the country struggled with the explosive issue of race, Atwater and Ellis met on opposite sides of the public school integration issue. Their encounters were charged with hatred and suspicion. In an amazing set of transformations, however, each of them came to see how the other had been exploited by the South's rigid power structure, and they forged a friendship that flourished against a backdrop of unrelenting bigotry.
Rich with details about the rhythms of daily life in the mid-twentieth-century South, The Best of Enemies offers a vivid portrait of a relationship that defied all odds. By placing this very personal story into broader context, Osha Gray Davidson demonstrates that race is intimately tied to issues of class, and that cooperation is possible--even in the most divisive situations--when people begin to listen to one another.
Billed as the story of the friendship between black activist Ann Atwater and ex-Klansman C. P. Ellis (whose story was broached in Studs Terkel's Race), this book actually devotes few pages to that relationship. Rather, Davidson (Broken Heartland) has written a well-crafted portrait of the evolution of race relations in Durham, N.C.-and of America's tendency to ignore issues of class. He describes white Durham's historical self-delusion on race, and the student-fueled rise of 1960s civil rights activism. Atwater, a poor domestic, became inspired by a community organizer to become a goad to city officials. Meanwhile, Ellis, a poor white laborer who believed in segregation, decided to attend city functions to express the voice of poor whites. A daring city official put Atwater and Ellis in charge of a series of meetings on school desegregation. Ellis learned, to his surprise, that he and black parents shared many of the same class-based fears and concerns; this led to friendship with Atwater and his estrangement from the Klan. Unfortunately, this book ends at that turning point, in the early 1970s.