Studs Terkel’s 1992 book, “Race: What Blacks and Whites Think about Feel about the American Obsession,” briefly mentions the major players in the 1971 fight for school desegregation in Durham, N.C.
The short passage wasn’t enough for reviewer Osha Gray Davidson. So he wrote his own book, “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South.” Published in 2007, it inspired the major motion picture “The Best of Enemies,” now showing at the Marcus and AMC cinemas in Cedar Rapids.
Davidson didn’t aid with the screenplay but is happy with the final product — and that this dramatic chapter from American history is reaching an even wider audience.
The Des Moines native and 1982 University of Iowa graduate spent three or four years traveling to North Carolina to meet people on both sides of the desegregation issue, including black civil rights activist Ann Atwater and local Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis. The two — played on-screen by Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell — reluctantly co-chaired two weeks of racially charged community conversations known as a “charrette.” The sessions ended with a vote in favor of desegregation, and united Atwater and Ellis for the rest of their lives.
“I was struck by the most obvious thing first — the story of friendship between these two people who were so apparently different that finding any common ground between them seems impossible,” Davidson said by phone from his home in Phoenix. “That was the hook.
“What interested me more was what Studs wasn’t able to get into in that short of a space. I needed a whole book to get into the context of race and class, and the intersection of race and class and gender through history.”
Now 64, Davidson was just old enough to hear about desegregation and racial strife in the 1960s, through his parents, Sol and Penny Davidson. His father was on the Human Rights Commission in Des Moines. Among their family friends were Luther Glanton Jr., Iowa’s first African-American district judge, and his wife, Willie Glanton, the first African-American woman elected to the Iowa House of Representatives.
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“It was a topic in our house, but as a white person, it wasn’t anything I was experiencing firsthand,” Davidson said, adding that “it was impossible to live through that era without at least knowing that (school integration) was an issue,” but he was more involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
“Most white people, especially in Iowa, are pretty shielded from the realities of race and class,” he said, subjects he’s afraid still are lacking in textbooks in parts of the country. “You can’t know American history if you don’t know black American history.”
LEGACY & LESSONS
Davidson would spend a week or two at a time speaking with Atwater, Ellis and others who helped or watched Durham’s history evolve.
Atwater was having health and mobility issues, so she and Davidson met at her home. But he drove around town with Ellis, who would point out what happened at various sites.
“It was pretty wonderful and amazing to get to know C.P.,” he said.
Ellis not only renounced his Klan membership as he cast the fateful vote, he became a union organizer, continually re-elected by the predominantly black workforce. He was especially proud to secure Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday in the union contract.
“So C.P. went from being an avowed racist to being not just a non-racist, but an anti-racist working for equality for all people,” Davidson said.
“That’s what drew me to the story. It shows the possibilities of what can happen — how people can change.”
If the head of the largest KKK unit in North Carolina can become an anti-racist proponent and worker, “then anybody can change,” he said.
“There’s all sorts of lines that can be crossed when we see that we have more in common than we have apart,” he added. “C.P. would boil it down and say, ‘We need each other.’ He’d say it sometimes when we were driving. He’d look out the window and say, ‘People just need to realize that we need each other,’ and for him, it got to be that simple.”
Ellis’ life was anything but simple in the aftermath.
“He received death threats for years,” Davidson said. “He told me there were places that he couldn’t go in Durham — he wanted to take me, but he couldn’t do it, because it was too dangerous. We went to several black neighborhoods, but it was in white neighborhoods that he said no, he would be killed if he went there.
“I think the Klan decided it was best just to leave him be and not make a martyr out of him. I don’t know their thinking on why he wasn’t killed, but C.P. was expecting to be killed.”
Ellis had no standing in the community and no friends at that time, but he and Atwater became like brother and sister, Davidson said.
Still, Ellis was so distraught and riddled with guilt over abandoning the poor whites who were being manipulated by the wealthy upper class that he tried to kill himself. He checked into a psychiatric hospital and eventually forgave himself for growing past his old ways, his old friends and the old power structure.
A breakthrough came when his therapist helped him realize he didn’t hate his former friends, he loved more people.
“Driving home from that therapy session, he had to pull over to cry. He realized all he had done was grow, and there was nothing wrong with that,” Davidson said. “That’s the end of the book, but it’s really like a beginning for C.P. Now he had to reconstruct a life free of the mythology of white supremacy he had grown up with. He had to make sense of the world — and he did.”
The former KKK leader turned civil rights activist died in 2003, at age 78. Atwater died in 2016, at age 80. Davidson maintained contact with them throughout the years.
Davidson’s story continues, as well.
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An English major at the UI, he described himself as a freelance writer, author and photographer. His works typically have blended politics, history, and environmental and social issues, and have graced the pages of Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Mother Jones and other publications. He also co-wrote the screenplay for “Coral Reef Adventures,” and among his books are “Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto” and “Under Fire: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control.”
He and his wife, whom he met at the UI, have lived in Phoenix since 2002. They’ve raised three children and have two grandchildren in Washington, D.C., and two in Portland, Ore., so some of his travel involves family time, as well as recent movie premieres.
And for the past year, he’s been volunteering with the nonprofit Humane Borders Inc., driving water trucks to water stations set up along migrant routes in the nearby Sonoran Desert.
“That may lead to a writing project, or not, I don’t know,” he said, “but it’s something I was moved to do, as somebody who lives here. It’s something that’s concrete.”
With social issues close to his heart, if he feels any animosity stirring toward a group of people with whom he disagrees, he hears Ellis’ words, “We need each other.”
“I need to understand where other people are coming from,” Davidson said. “That definitely doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with them, but there’s a huge value in just understanding people who are different and hold different beliefs.”
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