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Ann Atwater’s amazing rise from advocate for the poor to ‘Best of Enemies’ stardom

Played by Taraji P. Henson in a new movie, Atwater challenged a local Klan leader as a civil rights activist in Durham, N.C. — and completely won him over.

Ann Atwater in an image from the 2002 documentary “An Unlikely Friendship.” (Courtesy of STXfilms)
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In 1967, Ann Atwater, a black civil rights advocate and community organizer, arrived for an appointment with a white school board member in Durham, N.C.

As Atwater was making demands for improvements to the local schools, the white school board member made one very serious mistake. He got up in the middle of their conversation, ignoring Atwater and the crowd of black parents behind her.

“So what I did, when he went to get up, I hit him over the head with the receiver of the telephone," Atwater recalled in a 2010 interview. "And then he sat down and I snatched the phone out the wall, and we sat down and we had a meeting.”

Atwater changed history in Durham, refusing to be ignored as she demanded better schools and living conditions for black residents.

“City council people, would, they was in those chairs you know they wheel around, and they would turn their backs to us and didn’t wanna hear us," Atwater said in the 2010 interview with Duke University historian Robert Korstad. "And we had to go up and knock them back around so that would let them know that we are human and we’ll talk to them.”

The real-life story of Atwater is featured in the movie “The Best of Enemies,” starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, which opens in theaters Friday. The movie, which tells the story of the unlikely friendship that developed between Atwater and C.P. Ellis, a local Klan leader, focuses on a 10-day “charrette,” a community meeting that was organized in 1971 to grapple with the issue of school desegregation.

Atwater was selected as co-chair. The other co-chair selected was C.P. Ellis, an exalted cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan in Durham.

Atwater and Ellis hated each other.

“I didn't like them. I didn't like integration. I didn't like the demonstrations downtown,” Ellis told NPR in a 1996 interview. “I didn't like Ann boycotting stores. And she was an effective boycotter, too. She was making progress. I hated her guts.”

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Atwater countered: “I hated him just as hard as he hated me. And we showed that towards each other up until we went into the 10-day meeting.”

Atwater was an unlikely civil rights activist.

She was born in Hallsboro, N.C., the daughter of sharecroppers. Her mother died when she was 6. When Atwater got pregnant at 14, her father — a deacon in the church — grabbed his shotgun and walked to the house of the man responsible, French Wilson.

“What are you gonna do?’ " the father demanded, according to the book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson, upon which the movie is based. "The couple were married a week later.”

Her first baby died soon after birth. Two years later, she had another baby, whom she named Lydia, Davidson wrote. She moved to Durham in 1953.

“My husband was already here, and he sent back for me and my oldest child, and he told me he had a place for us to live,” Atwater explained during the oral history interview.

But when she arrived in Durham, with her baby girl on her hip, a small suitcase and a shopping bag full of the baby’s clothes, her husband was not at the bus station, and he did not have a place for the family to live. They ended up living in one small bedroom shared with another man who slept in one bed while Atwater, her husband and the baby slept in another.

Her husband was a drinker who often spent all his pay on homemade liquor. After their second daughter, Marilyn, was born, he left the family and moved to Richmond for a better job, according to Davidson. When he requested that she and the two girls come, Atwater wrote a letter saying: “I already followed you to Durham. I’m not following you any further.” Soon, she divorced him.

Atwater went to work as a maid, making 30 cents an hour. But the job didn’t last, and Atwater went to the Department of Social Services to apply for help.

She was living in dilapidated house in North Durham on $57 a month when she became an activist. One evening a housing organizer came by and asked whether she needed help to get repairs made to the house and invited her to a community meeting.

After that, Atwater went door to door telling people how they could get their landlords to fix their houses.

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In 1967, Atwater took a 17-week training course where she learned about tenant rights, housing codes and how to organize community protests.

“She was the star of her class,” Davidson wrote, “and when the training was over, she could [as she herself put it] kill anybody that wasn’t already dead.”

Atwater quickly rose to become a formidable spokeswoman for the poor in Durham. She was one of those legendary black women in the South who was simply fearless when facing white oppression. She became an activist with Operation Breakthrough and would later work with the United Organizations for Community improvement.

As a chair of a housing committee, Atwater organized protests and rallies calling for better housing conditions for the poor. When Atwater discovered caseworkers kept key information from clients, she figured out how to get the information herself.

“One day we were working with a welfare problem, people weren’t getting the type help that they were supposed to get from the welfare department, so I took one of the ladies and went down to the Department of Social Services,” Atwater recalled in a 2010 interview. “And I had my coat on, and I took the manual ... off the desk and put it under my coat while she was fussing about coming there and not getting any help. ... I went on back out the street and went on down, right back down the street to the office, and we Xeroxed the part that told the welfare recipients their rights.”

Atwater, who died in 2016 at the age of 80, defied stereotypes. She was not afraid of white school board members, nor white city council members nor the local Klan and its methods of intimidation. She made no bones about taking them out if necessary.

“I almost killed C.P. Ellis a couple of years before we worked together to integrate Durham’s schools,” Atwater wrote in a 2013 column in the Durham Herald-Sun titled “What Forgiveness Costs.”

“We were at a meeting downtown together, and he kept yelling ‘n----’ this and ‘n----’ that. I pulled out the knife that I kept in my hand bag and opened the blade. As soon as he got close to me, I was going to grab his head from behind and cut him from ear to ear. But my pastor was sitting there and saw me holding the knife. He grabbed my hand and said, ‘Don’t give them the satisfaction.’ ”

In 1971, as tensions rose over school integration, union organizers in Durham called in Bill Riddick, a professor and consultant, to lead the effort to resolve the issue. Riddick set up a meeting, which is referred to in the movie as a charrette.

The charrette was held for 10 days from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Whatever the leaders chose on school integration would become a binding decision that Durham’s City Council would have to follow.

Over 10 days, the opposing sides met and tension grew. Then, when it was nearly over, Atwater and Ellis had a change of heart.

“It wasn’t until way down in the meeting," Atwater recalled in 2002 documentary film, “Ann Atwater: Grassroots Organizer and Veteran of America’s Freedom Struggle,” “when the children got us together and said they wanted to go to school together. We looked at each other like fools we’d been arguing about the wrong things and hadn’t been doing anything to make the school system better.”

They started talking. At one point, she said, "We went in the office and cried because we were doing things the wrong way just because one was black and one was white.”

On the final night of the charrette, Ellis stood before the crowd and ripped up his Klan card.

The two became lifelong friends, often appearing together in interviews and documentaries.

When Ellis, who later became a labor rights activist, died in 2005, his family asked Atwater to give the eulogy.

“The funeral homes were still segregated,” said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, director of the School for Conversion, a community program in Durham.

“She showed up and sat down in the chapel,” Wilson-Hartgrove said in an interview. “One of the workers said, ‘Ma’am, this is the service for Clayborn Ellis. She said, ‘I know.’ He said, ‘It is private.’ She said, ‘I know.’ He said, ‘Family only.’ She said, ‘He was my brother.’ "

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