Ann Atwater, Durham Civil Rights Activist, Dies At 80

Jun 21, 2016

The Durham Civil Rights History mural features Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis in the upper left corner, working at the School Charrette Headquarters.
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC

Durham Civil Rights activist Ann Atwater – best known for the relationship she forged with her biggest enemy, a member of the Ku Klux Klan – has died. She was 80.

Atwater's fight for justice began at home where she lived in dilapidated housing with no electricity. She tirelessly fought for better housing for blacks in Durham.

In the 1960s, she became active in Operation Breakthrough, an anti-poverty movement that helped spark Durham's Civil Rights Movement. Atwater would later lead the United Organizations for Community Improvement.

In the early 1970s, Atwater's strong voice became paired with that of C.P. Ellis, an Exalted Cyclops, or chief officer, of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan. They were enemies, and it was even reported that Atwater "pulled out a pocket knife to try and kill Ellis." 

Ellis and Atwater would eventually become friends in the fight to desegregate Durham schools, co-chairing the school charrette. The two are featured in Durham's new Civil Rights History mural, near the Durham Arts Council.

Durham's Hayti Heritage Center Executive Director Angela Lee remembered the book, play and dramatic reading about how Atwater and Ellis' relationship evolved.  Lee said it wasn't easy.

"I am told there were threats, and the Klan members carried guns," Lee said. "It had to be a really tense time, but...her faith had to be much greater than her fear."

Lee added: "You know the thought of them coming together in one room to talk about bringing their kids together in a classroom – it may be difficult for some folks to imagine that in 2016, but that was very much a part of our reality."

Ann Atwater speaks with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.
Credit School for Conversion

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, director of the School for Conversion, was a close friend of Atwater's in her latter years and was by her side when she passed. Atwater's life lessons could teach folks a lot today, he said.

"She knew people who aren't supposed to be friends can be friends," Wilson-Hartgrove said. "The legacy she leaves here is a woman who showed us you can love your enemy."

The friendship between Atwater and Ellis would eventually become a book and a play, "The Best of Enemies." It's also slated to become an upcoming film.

In 2013, wheelchair-bound Atwater said she’s still a fighter.

“[The reasons] I’m not running on the streets and fighting is because I fell and broke my leg in two places and I’m not able to get out, but I can still holler at folks," Atwater said.