C. P. Ellis

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Claiborne Paul Ellis (8 January 1927 – 3 November 2005) was an American segregationist turned civil rights activist and trade union organizer. Ellis was at one time Exalted Cyclops of a Ku Klux Klan group in Durham. He was born in Durham, North Carolina.

In 1971 there was a great deal of turmoil in the Durham NC City Schools because of a court-ordered desegregation. Bill Riddick, motivated by fears of violence among the students organized a ten-day community meeting called a charrette where the whole community came to try to solve this problem. The first step was to create a steering committee that was representative of the whole community. Riddick identified Ann Atwater, a poor African American welfare mom and civil rights activist and Ellis to co-chair that meeting.

After 10 days of talks the two became the unlikeliest of friends and Ellis came to believe that whites, especially poor whites, could prosper more from the civil-rights movement than from segregation. Atwater and Ellis came to know each other as individuals instead of as stereotypes. They came to see how they, as poor people, were both oppressed and that their children had many of the same issues. It was during this time that they cried together.

During the charrette, gospel music was performed. Ellis could be seen clapping his hands and stomping his feet to the music. Atwater told how she had to teach Ellis how to clap because "white folks clap on the odd beat". At the last night of the charrette, 1000 people participated, including Ellis' fellow Klan members. At the microphone, Ellis held his Klan membership card up and said: "If schools are going to be better by me tearing up this card, I shall do so". Ellis thus renounced the Klan that night and never returned. The remaining Klansmen threatened his life and never talked to him again for the next 30 years.

Ellis and Atwater formed an enduring friendship. He went on to organize black and white labor unions in Durham, and Atwater continued to empower poor people. Ellis' conversion to desegregation is documented in the book Best of Enemies (1996), a documentary An Unlikely Friendship, and in a moving interview with Studs Turkel recorded in the book American Dreams (1980) by Studs Turkel.

C.P. Ellis died of Alzheimer's disease in 2005. Ann Atwater eulogized his funeral.