WITH AN APPENDIX FROM STUDS TERKEL INTERVIEW WITH C.P. LEWIS
Ellis and Atwater couldn’t stand each other. To Atwater, Ellis was an ignorant racist cracker. To Ellis, Atwater was a mean, loudmouthed black woman who was forever blaming white people for her problems. Despite their mutual antipathy, they joined the forum steering committee to represent their racial communities and ensure that the other did not participate unopposed. Ellis and Atwater were nominated to co-chair the charrette on the grounds that its leaders should represent different points of view. Both reluctantly agreed.
When news of the co-chairing arrangement was announced, Ellis and Atwater were rebuked by their friends. Some members of the Klan called Ellis a race traitor and threatened to kill him. Atwater’s people berated her for agreeing to work with an avowed white supremacist.
During the planning stages, Ellis wouldn’t even speak to Atwater. Yet he wanted to make the process work; he thought that the right solutions to the school system’s problems could reduce the harm that integration was doing to white children. He also wanted to show his fellow Klansmen that he hadn’t sold out and was working behind the scenes to represent their interests. So he reached out to Atwater, proposing that they set aside their feelings and cooperate to make the charrette a success. Again, she agreed, warily.
A few months later, at the end of the second day of the charrette, exhausted after twelve hours of meetings, Ellis and Atwater collapsed in adjacent chairs and began to talk to each other more personally. Ellis told Atwater that his kids had been taunted in school because he was working with her. Atwater told Ellis that her kids had gotten the same treatment because she was working with him. They talked about how teachers always seemed to find fault with their kids rather than with kids from more affluent families. Ellis was amazed to learn that Atwater was human and that her problems were much like his own. Davidson’s account of this scene leaves no doubt that it was a transformative moment:
C.P. couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But even more amazing to him was what he was saying—and to whom. He was sharing his most intimate grievances, all of his doubts and failures, with the hated Ann Atwater. The militant he usually referred to with a sneer as “that fat nigger.” And yet, here they were, talking like old friends. As if she wasn’t black at all, or he wasn’t white, or as if all that didn’t matter. He looked at her and it was as if he was seeing her for the first time. He was stunned by what he saw. Mirrored in her face were the same deeply etched lines of work and worry that marked his own face. And suddenly he was crying. The tears came without warning, and once started, he was unable to stop them. Ann was dumbfounded, but she reacted instinctively by reaching out and taking his hand in her own. She tried to comfort him, stroking his hand and murmuring, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” as he sobbed. Then she, too, began to cry.
A little over a week later, Ellis addressed a ballroom crowd gathered to celebrate the end of the charrette and delivery of its report to the community. He had by then begun his break from the Klan. “Something has happened to me,” Ellis said, departing from his script and remarking on how the experience had affected him. “I think it’s for the best.”
Completing the transformation begun during the charrette was not easy for Ellis. For a time, he struggled with the new feelings and understandings that had upended his world. What he had come to see, through working with Atwater and the other black people who had credited his honesty and treated him with respect, despite his repugnant views, was that black people were not his problem.
Rocky and uncertain though the process was, by working together Ellis and Atwater discovered that race was a fiction that masked their common class interests. Their struggles to make decent lives for themselves and their children, they came to see, did not arise from the other side of a color line but from above them on a class ladder. Both were disdained by the political and economic elites of their respective racial communities. Both were subject to exploitation because of their lack of education and wealth. Both could make gains by uniting to fight the same power structure that held them down.
Eventually, Ellis and Atwater became not only temporary allies but long-time friends. After the charrette, Ellis publicly renounced the Klan and went on to become a union organizer. He worked for the International Union of Operating Engineers for eighteen years before his retirement in 1994. Ellis was 78 when he died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2005. Atwater, who said at Ellis’s funeral that God had brought them together for a purpose, remained a community activist until her death at 80 in 2016.
* * *
Forty-six years after the events that are at its core, the story of C. P. Ellis and Ann Atwater still holds valuable lessons about the place of identity politics in a capitalist society. In some ways, their story begins with identities: his as a white man and hers as a black woman. If not for these ascribed identities—identities deriving from social categories that existed long before they were born—Ellis and Atwater might never have been antagonists.
The racial identities bequeathed to Ellis and Atwater led them to believe that they were fundamentally different kinds of people. These were not equally valued identities, of course. The ideology of white supremacy allowed Ellis to imagine that his value as a human being was greater than Atwater’s, simply because he was white and she was black. It was this investment in a feeling of white superiority that made his identity as a white man worth defending. The Klan was unusual only in that it made this valuation, unspoken in polite company, explicit.
What Ellis had accepted, as W. E. B. Du Bois famously called it, was the psychological wage of whiteness. This wage was paid in the currency of positive feeling, resting on a false belief in white superiority. Dating to the late 1600s, colonial elites in North America offered indentured workers of European descent modest privileges and a chance to identify as “white”—as being of the same superior racial stock as members of the ruling class—as a way to divide them from workers of African descent, thereby to quell the threat of working-class solidarity. The psychological wage of whiteness also made exploitation more bearable and less likely to erupt into rebellion. In exchange for this ideological balm, white workers accepted lower wages, less political power, and loss of part of their humanity.
For Ellis and many others, membership in the Klan raised the psychological wage of identifying as white, offering, as always, a form of compensation for economic marginality. More than this, Klan ideology misidentified the source of that marginality, blaming blacks, Jews, and communists. The charrette process taught Ellis that he’d been misled, that he’d gotten many things wrong. He came to see that he’d implicitly accepted a bargain that would forever leave him—and other working-class people, black and white—exploitable and exploited by political and economic elites. He came to see, as working with Atwater brought about a change of heart and mind, that racism had cost him a piece of his soul.
The Ellis/Atwater story is extraordinary in that it involves a dramatic transformation of rare degree. This is part of what makes it so compelling; it inspires hope, as the subtitle of Davidson’s book implies, that even vehement racists are redeemable. But there is another reason to find the story compelling: it demonstrates the principle that the best way to overcome prejudice and racism is to get people working together, as equals, on a common problem.
The story can also be read as a cautionary tale about identity politics, though it’s not a simple one. While racial identities divided Atwater and Ellis, those identities also drew them together. If not for civil rights struggles on the part of people identified as “black” and acting in solidarity on the basis of this identity, Atwater would not have had a constituency. Even Ellis, whose racial identity tied him to a historically dominant group, was involved largely because he saw himself as leading a put-upon faction of that group. If not for these differences, and a willingness on the part of the charrette organizers to acknowledge them, Ellis and Atwater would not have discovered their shared class interests. Concerns for diversity and inclusion can thus produce results that are, as the saying goes, more than the sum of their parts.
Yet there is indeed a cautionary lesson here, one that echoes analyses that cite the election of Donald Trump as evidence of the failure of identity politics. What those politics have amounted to, critics say, is an obsession with identity that obscures the larger reality of class oppression. According to this critique, many progressives have been more concerned in recent decades with expressing their racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, and with having those expressions honored, than with working together, across lines of difference, to challenge the capitalist system that depends on exploitation and division for its existence. Identity politics has thus led us, as Walter Benn Michaels argues, to love diversity and ignore inequality. Which is precisely what Ellis and Atwater did not do.
In more positive terms, the lesson is that what Ellis did is what working-class whites must do more generally: develop a consciousness of class that reveals their common interests with working-class people of color. As with Ellis, this consciousness, this way of understanding how capitalist society works, would begin, at the very least, to put the notion of race into question. In the long run, class consciousness might well dissolve it. Getting to that point, the point where the wages of whiteness are understood as cheap payoff for accepting subordination, won’t happen solely through encounters with texts. It will require encounters with flesh-and-blood Others, under conditions like those of the Durham charrette.
To say that more attention should be paid to class is not to say that racism and sexism should be relegated to the background. It is not to say that demands for fair and equal treatment by women and people of color should be tabled until capitalism is abolished. That was the dysfunctional approach of an older Left, one dominated by white males, and it is part of what produced the divisive identity politics of the 1970s and ’80s. We should not make this mistake again.
The kind of coming together needed to discover common class interests will happen only if women and people of color are afforded no less dignity and respect than white males. But this won’t happen by piously calling out people for microaggressions and politically incorrect speech. What it will require, again, is the kind of hard collaboration through which Ellis and Atwater came to feel each other’s humanity. It is this feeling of respect for the other that undermines racism. Knowing that the cared-for other can be hurt by what we say—and that what we say can strengthen or undermine a relationship that is essential to accomplishing an important task—is the knowledge that drives out racism and sexism. This process takes time and entails painful mistakes.
Trump’s victory has led to much liberal hand-wringing about how the Democratic party can “win back” working-class whites. This is a dead-end concern. Even if campaign rhetoric attracted the votes of more working-class whites, it still would be drawing those votes to a pro-corporate party—a party whose capitalist paymasters create the very problems that greater class consciousness would bring to the fore. It would be a mistake, too, because seducing working-class voters with populist rhetoric is far different from teaching people to think critically about the capitalist system and the undemocratic concentrations of power that are the root of their problems. And it is far different from nurturing the extra-electoral social movements through which changes in consciousness occur.
Some left-of-liberal commentary has questioned the prospects for altering the hearts and minds of working-class whites drawn to Trump’s right-wing populism. Anthony DiMaggio describes Trump supporters as representing a “perverse fusion of economic discontent and hateful, right-wing bigotry and nationalism,” arguing that they are less open to progressive ideas than many on the left think. No doubt DiMaggio is right about a large portion of Trump supporters. Likewise he would have been right, fifty years ago, had he offered this characterization of C. P. Ellis.
In the face of this grim obduracy, the challenge is somehow to recreate the process that changed Ellis and Atwater. Showing how the richest .1% rigs politics and the economy in its favor is not enough. Urging people to be more empathic, to consider the suffering of others, is not enough. Exposing racism and sexism as based on lies and misconceptions is not enough. Bringing people together to share their stories and get to know each other is important but not enough. Much of this work has been done and is being done. And it is not enough.
What changed Ellis and Atwater was the opening-up to each other’s humanity that they experienced, face to face, in working together as equals to solve a common problem. This is the kind of experience that must be recreated. Without class consciousness, working-class whites are not the future of progressive politics in America. But when tears of solidarity break the levees of oppression, anything is possible.
Content and specifics matter, too. Any bringing-together that occurs, if it is going to build class consciousness and unite working-class whites and working-class people of color, will have to address common problems that are rooted in class domination. Fortunately, perhaps, this is true with regard to most problems—from crumbling public schools to stagnating wages to unaffordable health care to unaccountable police—faced by all working-class Americans.
So perhaps we need a national round of charrettes. The North Carolina AFL-CIO initiated the Durham charrette; unions, churches, and social movement groups might play similar facilitating roles today. In any case, two things seem clear. One is the need to focus on trying to solve real problems in a way that builds class solidarity. The second is that without a focus on real, shared problems that need solving, identity politics will likely run the process aground.
To have a chance of success, charrettes (or whatever they might be called) would need to be both local and diverse. Locality, a deep regard for a place called home, is what makes people care enough to participate; diversity is what helps conquer the biases that lock inequality in place. What else we might discover, as Atwater and Ellis did, is that the problems we face can’t be solved by diversifying the personnel who control the machineries of oppression but only by dismantling those machineries entirely.
p. 198 C. P. Ellis, “Why I Quit the Klan”
from American Dreams: Lost and Found by Studs Terkel. Copyright © 1980 by Studs Terkel.
We’re in his office in Durham, North Carolina. He is the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers. On the wall is a plaque: “Certificate of Service, in recognition to C.P. Ellis, for your faithful service to the city in having served as a member of the Durham Human Relations Council. February 1977.”
At one time, he had been president (exalted cyclops) of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
He is fifty-three years old.
My father worked in a textile mill in Durham. He died at forty-eight years old. It was probably from cotton dust. Back then, we never heard of brown lung. I was about seventeen years old and had a mother and sister depending on somebody to make a livin’. It was just barely enough insurance to cover his burial. I had to quit school and go to work. I was about eighth grade when I quit.
My father worked hard but never had enough money to buy decent clothes. When I went to school, I never seemed to have adequate clothes to wear. I always left school late afternoon with a sense of inferiority. The other kids had nice clothes, and I just had what Daddy could buy. I still got some of those inferiority feelin’s now that I have to overcome once in a while.
I loved my father. He would go with me to ball games. We’d go fishin’ together. I was really ashamed of the way he’d dress. He would take this money and give it to me instead of putting it on himself. I always had the feeling about somebody looking at him and makin’ fun of him and makin’ fun of me. I think it had to do somethin’ with my life.
My father and I were very close, but we didn’t talk about too many intimate things. He did have a drinking problem. During the week, he would work every day, but weekends he was ready to get plastered. I can understand when a guy looks at his paycheck and looks at his bills, and he’s worked hard all the week, and his bills are larger than his paycheck. He’d done the best he could the entire week, and there seemed to be no hope. It’s an illness thing. Finally you just say: “The heck with it. I’ll just get drunk and forget it.”
My father was out of work during the depression, and I remember going with him to the finance company uptown, and he was turned down. That’s something that’s always stuck.
My father never seemed to be happy. It was a constant struggle with him just like it was for me. It’s very seldom I’d see him laugh. He was just tryin’ to figure out what he could do from one day to the next.
After several years pumping gas at a service station, I got married. We had to have children. Four. One child was born blind and retarded, which was a real additional expense to us. He’s never spoken a word. He doesn’t know me when I go to see him. But I see him, I hug his neck. I talk to him, tell him I love him. I don’t know whether he knows me or not, but I know he’s well taken care of. All my life, I had work, never a day without work, worked all the overtime I could get and still could not survive financially. I began to say there’s somethin’ wrong with this country. I worked my butt off and just never seemed to break even.
I had some real great ideas about this great nation. (Laughs.) They say to abide by the law, go to church, do right and live for the Lord, and everything’ll work out. But it didn’t work out. It just kept gettin’ worse and worse.
I was workin’ a bread route. The highest I made one week was seventy-five dollars. The rent on our house was about twelve dollars a week. I will never forget: outside of this house was
a 265-gallon oil drum, and I never did get enough money to fill up that oil drum. What I would do every night, I would run up to the store and buy five gallons of oil and climb up the ladder and pour it in that 265-gallon drum. I could hear that five gallons when it hits the bottom of that oil drum, splatters, and it sounds like it’s nothin’ in there. But it would keep the house warm for the night. Next day you’d have to do the same thing.
I left the bread route with fifty dollars in my pocket. I went to the bank and I borrowed four thousand dollars to buy the service station. I worked seven day a week, open and close, and finally had a heart attack. Just about two months before the last payments of that loan. My wife had done the best she could to keep it runnin’. Tryin’ to come out of that hold, I just couldn’t do it.
I really began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I tried to find somebody. I began to blame it on black people. I had to hate somebody. Hatin’ America is hard to do because you can’t see it to hate it. You gotta have somethin’ to look at to hate. (Laughs.) The natural person for me to hate would be black people, because my father before me was a member of the Klan. As far as he was concerned, it was the savior of the white people. It was the only organization in the world that would take care of the white people. So I began to admire the Klan.
I got active in the Klan while I was at the service station. Every Monday night, a group of men would come by and buy a Coca-Cola, go back to the car, take a few drinks, and come back and stand around talkin’. I couldn’t help but wonder: Why are these dudes comin’ out every Monday? They said they were with the Klan and have meetings close-by. Would I be interested? Boy, that was an opportunity I really looked forward to! To be part of somethin’. I joined the Klan, went from member to chaplain, from chaplain to vice-president, from vice-president to president. The title is exalted Cyclops.
The first night I went with the fellas, they knocked on the door and gave the signal. They sent some robed Klansmen to talk to me and give me some instructions. I was led into a large meeting room, and this was the time of my life! It was thrilling. Here’s a guy who’s worked all his life and struggled all his life to be something, and here’s the moment to be something. I will never forget it. Four robed Klansmen led me into the hall. The lights were dim, and the only thing you could see was an illuminated cross. I knelt before the cross. I had to make certain vows and promises. We promised to uphold the purity of the white race, fight communism, and protect white womanhood.
After I had taken my oath, there was loud applause goin’ throughout the buildin’, musta been at least four hundred people. For this one little ol’ person. It was a thrilling moment for C. P. Ellis.
It disturbs me when people who do not really know what it’s all about are so very critical of individual Klansmen. The majority of ‘em are low-income whites, people who really don’t have a part in something. They have been shut out as well as the blacks. Some are not very well educated either. Just like myself. We had a lot of support from doctors and lawyers and police officers.
Maybe they’ve had bitter experiences in this life and they had to hate somebody. So the natural person to hate would be the black person. He’s beginnin’ to come up, he’s beginnin’ to learn to read and start votin’ and run for political office. Here are white people who are supposed to be superior to them, and we’re shut out.
I can understand why people join extreme right-wing or left-wing groups. They’re in the same boat I was. Shut out. Deep down inside, we want to be part of this great society. Nobody listens, so we join these groups.
At one time, I was state organizer of the National Rights party. I organized a youth group for the Klan. I felt we were getting old and our generation’s gonna die. so I contacted certain kids in schools. They were havin’ racial problems. On the first night, we had a hundred high school students. When they came in the door, we had “Dixie” playin’. These kids were just thrilled to death. I begin to hold weekly meetin’s with ‘em, teachin’ the principles of the Klan. At that time, I believed Martin Luther King had Communist connections. I began to teach that Andy Young was affiliated with the Communist party.
I had a call one night from one of our kids. He was about twelve. He said: “I just been robbed downtown by two niggers.” I’d had a couple of drinks and that really teed me off. I go downtown and couldn’t find the kid. I got worried. I saw two young black people. I had the .32 revolver with me. I said: “Nigger, you seen a little young white boy up here? I just got a call from him and was told that some niggers robbed him of fifteen cents.” I pulled my pistol out and put it right at his head. I said: “I’ve always wanted to kill a nigger and I think I’ll make you the first one.” I nearly scared the kid to death, and he struck off.
This was the time when the civil rights movement was really beginnin’ to peak. The blacks were beginnin’ to demonstrate and picket downtown stores. I will never forget some black lady I hated with a purple passion. Ann Atwater. Every time I’d go downtown, she’d be leadin’ a boycott. How I hated – pardon the expression, I don’t use it much now – how I just hated that black nigger. (Laughs.) Big, fat, heavy woman. She’d pull about eight demonstrations, and first thing you know they had two, three blacks at the checkout counter. Her and I have had some pretty close confrontations.
I felt very big, yeah. (Laughs.) We’re more or less a secret organization. We didn’t want anybody to know who we were, and I began to do some thinkin’. What am I hidin’ for? I’ve
never been convicted of anything in my life. I don’t have any court record. What am I, C. P. Ellis, as a citizen and a member of the United Klansmen of America? Why can’t I go to the city council meeting and say: “This is the way we feel about the matter? We don’t want you to purchase mobile units to set in our schoolyards. We don’t want niggers in our schools.”
We began to come out in the open. We would go to the meetings, and the blacks would be there and we’d be there. It was a confrontation every time. I didn’t hold back anything. We began to make inroads with the city councilmen and county commissioners. They began to call us friend. Call us at night on the telephone: “C. P., glad you came to that meeting last night.” They didn’t want integration either, but they did it secretively, in order to get elected. They couldn’t stand up openly and say it, but they were glad somebody was sayin’ it. We visited some of the city leaders in their home and talk to ‘em privately. It wasn’t long before councilmen would call me up: “The black’s are comin’ up tonight and makin’ outrageous demands. How about some of you people showin’ up and have a little balance?” I’d get on the telephone: “The niggers is comin’ to the council meeting tonight. Persons in the city’s called me and asked us to be there.”
We’d load up our cars and we’d fill up half the council chambers, and the blacks the other half. During these times, I carried weapons to the meetings, outside my belt. We’d go there armed. We would wind up just hollerin’ and fussin’ at each other. What happened? As a result of our fightin’ one another, the city council still had their way. They didn’t want to give up control to the blacks nor the Klan. They were usin’ us.
I began to realize this later down the road. One day I was walkin’ downtown and a certain city council member saw me comin’. I expected him to shake my hand because he was talkin’ to me at night on the telephone. I had been in his home and visited with him. He crossed the street.
Oh shit, I began to think, somethin’s wrong here. Most of ‘em are merchants or maybe an attorney, an insurance agent, people like that. As long as they kept low-income whites and low- income blacks fightin’, they’re gonna maintain control.
I began to get that feeling after I was ignored in public. I thought: Bullshit, you’re not gonna use me any more. That’s when I began to do some real serious thinkin’.
The same thing is happening in this country today. People are being used by those in control, those who have all the wealth. I’m not espousing communism. We got the greatest system of government in the world. But those who have it simply don’t want those who don’t have it to have any part of it. Black and white. When it comes to money, the green, the other colors make no difference. (Laughs.)
I spent a lot of sleepless nights. I still didn’t like blacks. I didn’t want to associate with ‘em. Blacks, Jews, or Catholics. My father said: “Don’t have anything to do with ‘em.” I didn’t until I met a black person and talked with him, eyeball to eyeball, and met a Jewish person and talked to him, eyeball to eyeball. I found out they’re people just like me. They cried, they cussed, they prayed, the had desires. Just like myself. Thank God, I got to the point where I can look past labels. But at that time, my mind was closed.
I remember one Monday night Klan meeting. I said something was wrong. Our city fathers were using us. And I didn’t like to be used. The reactions of the others was not too pleasant: “Let’s just keep fightin’ them niggers.”
I’d go home at night and I’d have to wrestle with myself. I’d look at a black person walkin’ down the street, and they guy’d have ragged shoes or his clothes would be worn. That began to do somethin’ to me inside. I went through this for about six months. I felt I just had to get out of the Klan. But I wouldn’t get out.
Then something happened. The state AFL-CIO received a grant from the Department of HEW, a $78,000 grant: how to solve racial problems in the school system. I got a telephone call from the president of the state AFL-CIO. “We’d like to get some people together from all walks of life.” I said: “All walks of life? Who you talkin’ about?” He said: “Blacks, whites, liberals, conservatives, Klansmen, NAACP people.”
I said: “No way am I comin’ with all those niggers. I’m not gonna be associated with those type of people.” A White Citizens Council guy said: “Let’s go up there and see what’s goin’ on. It’s tax money bein’ spent.” I walk in the door, and there was a large number of black and white liberals. I knew most of ‘em by face ‘cause I seen ‘em demonstratin’ around town. Ann Atwater was there. (Laughs.) I just forced myself to go in and sit down.
The meeting was moderated by a great big black guy who was bushy-headed. (Laughs.) That turned me off. He acted very nice. He said: “I want you all to feel free to say anything you want to say.” Some of the blacks stood up and say it’s white racism. I took all I could take. I asked for the floor and I cut loose. I said, “No, sir, it’s black racism. If we didn’t have niggers in the schools, we wouldn’t have the problems we got today.”
I will never forget. Howard Clements, a black guy, stood up. He said: “I’m certainly glad C. P. Ellis come because he’s the most honest man here tonight.” I said: “What’s that nigger tryin’ to do?” (Laughs.) At the end of that meeting, some blacks tried to come up shake my hand, but I wouldn’t do it. I walked off.
Second night, same group was there. I felt a little more easy because I got some things off my chest. The third night, after they elected all the committees, they want to elect a chairman. Howard Clements stood up and said: “I suggest we elect two co-chairpersons.” Joe Beckton, executive director of the Human Relations Commission, just as black as he can be, he nominated
me. There was a reaction from some blacks. Nooo. And, of all things, they nominated Ann Atwater, that big old fat black gal that I just hated with a purple passion, as co-chairman. I thought to myself: Hey, ain’t no way I can work with that gal. Finally, I agreed to accept it, ‘cause at this point, I was tired of fightin’, either for survival or against black people or against Jews or against Catholics.
A Klansman and a militant black woman, co-chairmen of the school committee. it was impossible. How could I work with her? But after about two or three days, it was in our hands. We had to make it a success. This give me another sense of belongin’, a sense of pride. This helped this inferiority feelin’ I had. A man who ahs stood up publicly and said he despised black people, all of a sudden he was willin’ to work with ‘em. Here’s a chance for a low-income white man to be somethin’. In spite of all my hatred for blacks and Jews and liberals, I accepted the job. Her and I began to reluctantly work together. (Laughs.) She had as many problems workin’ with me as I had workin’ with her.
One night, I called her: “Ann, you and I should have a lot of differences and we got ‘em now. But there’s somethin’ laid out here before us, and if it’s gonna be a success, you and I are gonna have to make it one. Can we lay aside some of those feelin’s?” She said: “I’m willing if you are.” I said: “Let’s do it.”
My old friends would call me at night: “C. P., what the hell is wrong with you? You’re sellin’ out the white race.” This begin to make me have guilt feelin’s. Am I doin’ right? Am I doin’ wrong? Here I am all of a sudden makin’ an about-face and tryin’ to deal with my feelin’s, my heart. My mind was beginnin’ to open up. I was beginnin’ to see what was right and what was wrong. I don’t want the kids to fight forever.
We were gonna go ten nights. By this time, I had went to work at Duke University, in maintenance. Makin’ very little money. Terry Sanford give me this ten days off with pay. He was president of Duke at the time. He knew I was a Klansman and realized the importance of blacks and whites getting along.
I said: “If we’re gonna make this thing a success, I’ve got to get to my kind of people.” The low-income whites. We walked the streets of Durham, and we knocked on doors and invited people. Ann was goin’ into the black community. They just wasn’t respondin’ to us when we made these house calls. Some of ‘em were cussin’ us out. “You’re sellin’ us out, Ellis, get out of my door. I don’t want to talk to you.” Ann was getting’ the same response from blacks: “What are you doin’ messin’ with that Klansman?”
One day, Ann and I went back to the school and we sat down. We began to talk and just reflect. Ann said: “My daughter came home cryin’ every day. She said her teacher was makin’ fun of me in front of the other kids.” I said: “Boy, the same thing happened to my kid. White liberal teacher was makin’ fun of Tim Ellis’s father, the Klansman. In front of other peoples. He came home cryin’.” At this point – (he pauses, swallows hard, stifles a sob) – I begin to see, here we are, two people from far ends of the fence, havin’ identical problems, except hers bein’ black and me bein’ white. From that moment on, I tell ya, that gal and I worked together good. I begin to love the girl, really. (He weeps.)
The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, had cussed each other, bawled each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know we had things in common.
We worked at it, with the people who came to these meetings. They talked about racism, sex education, about teachers not bein’ qualified. After seven, eight nights of real intense
discussion, these people, who’d never talked to each other before, all of a sudden came up with resolutions. It was really somethin’, you had to be there to get the tone and feelin’ of it.
At that point, I didn’t like integration, but the law says you do this and I’ve got to do what the law says, okay? We said: “Let’s take these resolutions to the school board.” The most disheartening thing I’ve ever faced was the school system refused to implement any one of these resolutions. These were recommendations from the people who pay taxes and pay their salaries. (Laughs.)
I thought they were good answers. Some of ‘em I didn’t agree with, but I been in this thing from the beginning, and whatever comes of it, I’m gonna support it. Okay, since the school board refused, I decided I’d just run for the school board.
I spent eighty-five dollars on the campaign. The guy runnin’ against me spent several thousand. I really had nobody on my side. The Klan turned against me. The low-income whites turned against me. The liberals didn’t particularly like me. The blacks were suspicious of me. The blacks wanted to support me, but they couldn’t muster up enough to support a Klansman on the school board. (Laughs.) But I made up my mind that what I was doin’ was right, and I was gonna do it regardless what anybody said.
It bothered me when people would call and worry my wife. She’s always supported me in anything I wanted to do. She was changing, and my boys were too. I got some of my youth corps kids involved. They still followed me.
I was invited to the Democratic women’s social hour as a candidate. Didn’t have but one suit to my name. Had it six, seven, eight years. I had it cleaned, put on the best shirt I had and a tie. Here were all this high-class wealthy candidates shakin’ hands. I walked up to the mayor and stuck out my hand. He give me that handshake with that rag type of hand. He said: “C. P., I’m
glad to see you.” But I could tell by his handshake he was lyin’ to me. This was botherin’ me. I know I’m a low-income person. I know I’m not wealthy. I know they were sayin’: “What’s this little ol’ dude runnin’ for school board?” Yet they had to smile and make like they’re glad to see me. I begin to spot some black people in that room. I automatically went to ‘em and that was a firm handshake. They said: “I’m glad to see you, C. P.” I knew they meant it – you can tell about a handshake.
Every place I appeared, I said I will listen to the voice of the people. I will nto make a major decision until I first contacted all the organizations in the city. I got 4,640 votes. The guy beat me by two thousand. Not bad for eighty-five bucks and no constituency.
The whole world was openin’ up, and I was learnin’ new truths that I had never learned before. I was beginnin’ to look at a black person, shake hands with him, and see him as a human bein’. I hadn’t got rid of all this stuff. I’ve still got a little bit of it. But somethin’ was happenin’ to me.
It was almost like bein’ born again. It was a new life. I didn’t have these sleepless nights I used to have when I was active in the Klan and slippin’ around at night. I could sleep at night and feel good about it. I’d rather live now than at any other time in history. It’s a challenge.
Back at Duke, doin’ maintenance, I’d pick up my tools, fix the commode, unstop the drains. But this got in my blood. Things weren’t right in this country, and what we done in Durham needs to be told. I was so miserable at Duke, I could hardly stand it. I’d go to work every mornin’ just hatin’ to go.
My whole life had changed. I got an eighth-grade education, and I wanted to complete high school. Went to high school in the afternoons on a program called PEP – Past Employment Progress. I was about the only white in the class, and the oldest. I begin to read about biology.
I’d take my books home at night, ‘cause I was determined to get through. Sure enough, I graduated. I got the diploma at home.
I come to work one mornin’ and some guy says: “We need a union.” At this time I wasn’t pro-union. My daddy was anti-labor too. We’re not gettin’ paid much, we’re havin’ to work seven days in a row. We’re all starvin’ to death. The next day, I meet the international representative of the Operating Engineers. He give me authorization cards. “Get these cards out and we’ll have an election.” There was eighty-eight for the union and seventeen no’s. I was elected chief steward for the union.
Shortly after, a union man come down from Charlotte and says we need a full-time rep. We’ve only got two hundred people at the two plants here. It’s just barely enough money comin’ in to pay your salary. You’ll have to get out and organize more people. I didn’t know nothin’ about organizin’ unions, but I knew how to organize people, stir people up. (Laughs.) That’s how I got to be business agent for the union.
When I began to organize, I began to see far deeper. I began to see people again bein’ used. Blacks against whites. I say this without any hesitancy: management is vicious. There’s two things they want to keep: all the money and all the say-so. They don’t want these poor workin’ folks to have none of that. I begin to see management fightin’ me with everything they had. Hire antiunion law firms, badmouth unions. The people were makin’ a dollar ninety-five an hour, barely able to get through weekends. I worked as a business rep and was seein’ all this.
Last year, I ran for business manager of the union. He’s elected by the workers. The guy that ran against me was black, and our membership is seventy-five percent black. I thought: Claiborne, there’s no way you can beat that black guy. People know your background. Even
though you’ve made tremendous strides, those black people are not gonna vote for you. You know how much I beat him? Four to one. (Laughs.)
The company used my past against me. They put out letters with a picture of a robe and a cap: Would you vote for a Klansman? They wouldn’t deal with the issues. I immediately called for a mass meeting. I met with the ladies at an electric component plant. I said: “Okay, this is Claiborne Ellis. This is where I come from. I want you to know right now, you black ladies here, I was at one time a member of the Klan. I want you to know, because they’ll tell you about it.”
I invited some of my old black friends. I said: “Brother Joe, Brother Howard, be honest now and tell these people how you feel about me.” They done it. (Laughs.) He said: “I know what C. P. Ellis come from. I knew him when he was. I knew him as he grew, and growed with him. I’m tellin’ you now: follow, follow this Klansman.” (He pauses, swallows hard.) “Any questions?” “No,” the black ladies said. “Let’s get on with the meeting, we need Ellis.” (He laughs and weeps.) Boy, black people sayin’ that about me. I won one thirty-four to forty-one. Four to one.
It makes you feel good to go into a plant and butt heads with professional union busters. You see black people and white people join hands to defeat the racist issues they use against people. They’re tryin’ the same things with the Klan. It’s still happenin’ today. Can you imagine a guy who’s got an adult high school diploma runnin’ into professional college graduates who are union busters? I gotta compete with ‘em. I work seven days a week, nights and on Saturday and Sunday. The salary’s not that great, and if I didn’t care, I’d quit. But I care and I can’t quit. I got a taste of it. (Laughs.)
I tell people there’s a tremendous possibility in this country to stop wars, the battles, the struggles, the fights between people. People say: “That’s an impossible dream. You sound like
Martin Luther King.” An ex-Klansman who sounds like Martin Luther King. (Laughs.) I don’t think it’s an impossible dream. It’s happened in my life. It’s happened in other people’s lives in America.
I don’t know what’s ahead of me. I have no desire to be a big union official. I want to be right out here in the field with the workers. I want to walk through their factory and shake hands with that man whose hands are dirty. I’m gonna do all that one little ol’ man can do. I’m fifty- two years old, and I ain’t got many years left, but I want to make the best of ‘em.
When the news came over the radio that Martin Luther King was assassinated, I got on the telephone and begin to call other Klansmen. We just had a real party at the service station. Really rejoicin’ ‘cause that son of a bitch was dead. Our troubles are over with. They say the older you get, the harder it is for you to change. That’s not necessarily true. Since I changed, I’ve set down and listened to tapes of Martin Luther King. I listen to it and tears come to my eyes ‘cause I know what he’s sayin’ now. I know what’s happenin’.
POSTSCRIPT: The phone rings. A conversation.
“This was a black guy who’s director of Operation Breakthrough in Durham. I had called
his office. I’m interested in employin’ some young black person who’s interested in learnin’ the labor movement. I want somebody who’s never had an opportunity, just like myself. Just so he can read and write, that’s all.”
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