WHY I QUIT THE KLAN: AN INTERVIEW WITH C.P. ELLIS
By Studs Terkel
C.P. Ellis was born in 1927 and was 53 years old at the time of this interview with Studs Terkel. For Terkel, America's foremost oral historian, this remained the most memorable and moving of all the interviews he'd done in a career spanning more than seven decades, for C.P. Ellis had once been the exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, N.C. During the interview, Terkel learned that Ellis had been born extremely poor in Durham, North Carolina; had struggled all his life to feed his family; had felt shut out of American society and had joined the Klan to feel like somebody. But later he got involved in a local school issue and reluctantly, gradually, began to work on a committee with a black activist named Ann Atwater, whom he despised at the time. Eventually, after many small epiphanies, he realized that they shared a common concern for their children, common goals as human beings. More surprising still, Ellis became a union organizer for a janitor's union—a long way from his personal philosophical roots. The Ellis-Atwater story is best documented in The Best of Enemies, a book by Osha Gray Davidson that tells of the unlikely friendship that developed between Ann and C.P. Ellis, when they first met in the 1960's. Apparently, their commonalities as oppressed human beings proved far stronger than the racial hatred that initially divided them.
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 see there’s something wrong with this country. I worked my butt off and just never seemed to break even. I had some real great ideas about this nation. 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 getting worse and worse…
Tryin’ to come out of that hole, I just couldn’t do it. I really began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I tried to find somebody. Hating America is hard to do because you can’t see it to hate it. You gotta have somethin’ to look at to hate. The natural person for me to hate would be Black people, because my father before me was a member of the Klan…
So I began to admire the Klan… To be part of somethin’. … The first night I went with the fellas . . . 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… After I had taken my oath, there was loud applause goin’ throughout the buildin’, musta been at least 400 people. For this one little ol person. It was a thrilling moment for C.P. Ellis…
The majority of [the Klansmen] are low-income Whites, people who really don’t have a part in something. They have been shut out as well as 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 . . . start votin’ and run for political office. Here are White people who are supposed to be superior to them, and we’re shut out… Shut out. Deep down inside, we want to be part of this great society. Nobody listens, so we join these groups…
We would go to the city council meetings and the Blacks would be there and we’d be there. It was a confrontation every time… We began to make some 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 homes and talked to em privately. It wasn’t long before councilmen would call me up: â€œThe Blacks are comin up tonight and makin outrageous demands. How about some of you people showin up and have a little balance?
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 [to avoid me]... 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 feelin' after I was ignored in public. I thought: . . . 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.
I spent a lot of sleepless nights. I still didn’t like Blacks. I didn’t want to associate with them. 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 they’re people just like me. They cried, they cussed, they prayed, they 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 the guy’d have ragged shoes or his clothes would be worn. That began to do something 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…
Ellis was invited, as a Klansman, to join a committee of people from all walks of life to make recommendations on how to solve racial problems in the school system. He very reluctantly accepted. After a few stormy meetings, he was elected co-chair of the committee, along with Ann Atwater, a combative Black woman who for years had been leading local efforts for civil rights.
By 1971, CP had become the Exalted Cyclops of the Klan’s Durham “klavern.” When a program was announced to facilitate the court-ordered desegregation of the Durham public schools CP went to the initial meeting to make sure the plan didn’t work. Also at the meeting was Ann Atwater, a Black community organizer CP had battled for years. The program director, a risk-taking innovator named Bill Riddick wanted to get both sides on-board. He nominated — and people approved — Atwater and CP as co-chairs of the two-week program.
Both were repulsed by the idea and both initially refused. Eventually, CP signed on, after realizing he’d be in a much better position to sabotage the program if he were leading it. Atwater felt compelled to accept the appointment so that people didn’t think she was afraid of the klansman.
A Klansman and a militant Black woman, co-chairmen of the school committee. It was impossible. How could I work with her? But it was in our hands. We had to make it a success. This gave me another sense of belongin’, a sense of pride. This helped the inferiority feeling I had. A man who has 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. 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 these eelins? 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 feelings. 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 feelings, 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…
One day, Ann and I went back to the school and we sat down. We began to talk and just reflect… I begin to see, here we are, two people from the far ends of the fence, havin’ identical problems, except hers bein’ Black and me bein’ White… The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, has 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…
They had steered clear of each other, and separately led discussion groups to talk about school problems. For the first time in his life CP was sitting in a room with Blacks and actually listening to them. He hated the experience. He hated being near them. He hated being forced to breathe the same air with them. He hated their smell. Most of all, CP hated the fact that most of the problems voiced by Black parents, he agreed with. When a Black woman cried while describing how some teachers allowed children to mock her daughter’s threadbare clothing, CP knew that feeling first-hand. A Black man asked how come their inner-city school had ancient typewriters that barely worked, while an all-white school in the affluent suburbs had new machines. CP hadn’t known about that and was also angry. The experience of identifying with Black complaints was repeated over and over. Each time, CP tried to convince himself that it meant nothing.
The problem was that CP knew better. His father had worked in Durham’s cotton mills for pennies a day and had died early of brown lung. Though he never worked in the mills himself, he knew what wealthy whites called him when they thought he couldn’t hear. Linthead — which was a Durham equivalent to “poor white trash.” In the mills, tufts of cotton would get caught in workers’ hair. Even living nearby, as CP did, meant that you’d occasionally have bits of fluff stuck on your head. Combing it out had no effect. Being born a linthead was like being born Black. It wasn’t something one could change, it was a permanent state of being. Many middle-to-upper class whites may have hated Blacks. But they despised and ridiculed lintheads — and CP had felt that sting his entire life.
His progress up the ladder of the Klan was an attempt to climb out of the social class he had been born into. As Exalted Cyclops, CP met regularly with the white powers-that-be in Durham. But the meetings were in secret, usually at night. When he was summoned to their homes to discuss Klan strategy, he was told to use the back door. He believed their explanation that for political reasons the relationship had to be kept secret. Or he pretended to believe that explanation. He even had himself convinced. Until the school meetings and the conversations he began having with his nemesis, Ann Atwater, in the gym when no one else was around.
Atwater hated CP, but she was a Christian, a follower of King, and believed in redemption. Helping CP became her mission. Several other leaders in the Black community who had never had a conversation with a Klansman, now were listening to and watching CP. They, too, knew what King would have wanted them to do.
CP complained that Black students had organized a gospel music night during the meetings, but that he wasn’t allowed to present information about his culture. Like what? he was asked. CP answered that he wanted to erect a display about the Ku Klux Klan. Atwater led the group in approving the idea.
Speaking on the last night of the program, CP announced that lintheads like him had more in common with poor Blacks than with rich whites. (He had tried convincing his Klansmen to share his vision, to turn the group into a class-based organization instead of one based on race. He was lucky to make it out of the Klavern hall alive.) In front of the stunned crowd, he tore up his KKK membership card.
The whole world was openin’ up, and I was learning new truths that I had never learned before. I was beginning 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… I come to work one morning and some guys says: “We need a union.” At this time I wasn’t pro-union. My daddy was antilabor too. We’re not gettin’ paid much, we’re havin’ to work seven days in a row. We’re all starvin’ to death… I didn’t know nothin’ about organizin’ unions, but I knew how to organize people, stir people up. That’s how I got to be business agent for the union.
When I began to organize, I began to see far deeper. I begin to see people again bein’ used. Blacks against Whites… There are two things management wants to keep: all the money and all the say-so. They don’t want none of these poor workin’ folks to have none of that. I begin to see management fightin’ me with everythin’ they had. Hire antiunion law firms, badmouth unions. The people were makin $1.95 an hour, barely able to get through weekends…
It makes you feel good to go into a plant and … see Black people and White people join hands and defeat the racist issues [union-busters] use against people… 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. 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…
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… Really rejoicin’ ’cause the 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’.
Thirty years later, CP retired as steward of a union with a membership that was 80-90% African-American.
All parts in plain text are Copyright © 1980 by Studs Terkel. Reprinted from Studs Terkel, American Dreams: Lost and Found (New York: Pantheon Books, Random House, Inc., 1980).
If you’re curious as to more details about C.P. Ellis’ life, including many of the parts I’ve italicized, please click here: http://trueslant.com/oshagraydavidson/2010/01/18/dr-king-and-the-klansman/