BARRY SAUNDERS: ‘The Best of Enemies?’ How about ‘the best of America?’
EDITOR’S NOTE: Barry Saunders has been a journalist for 38 years, starting as a copyboy and obituary writer with the Atlanta Constitution. He has worked for the Richmond County Daily Journal in Rockingham, The Robeson Record in Lumberton, The Post-Tribune in Gary, Ind. and as a columnist the News & Observer in Raleigh. His reporting and writing can now be found on The Saunders Report.
While lunching quietly and undisturbed with Bill Riddick recently, I told him: “You know, this may be the last time you’ll be able to eat out in public without people hounding you for an autograph.”
He poo-pooed the idea, but Riddick has been running around with bona fide movie stars Taraji P. Henson - that’s “Cookie” to you Empire fans - and Sam Rockwell, and Riddick’s character was central to the action of their new movie.
Hollywood has discovered the story of C.P. Ellis, Exalted Grand Cyklops or something of the Durham Ku Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, a black mother and community activist who wanted her children - and yours, too - to have access to a good education.
Durham’s segregated schools of the 1960s made that impossible, Atwater felt, and she set about trying to help dismantle that system.
Ellis, the ku kluxer creating chaos in city council meetings and calling people the N-word like he was Katt Williams - wanted to ensure that the system stayed in place.
The movie The Best of Enemies is about their battles and the friendship that eventually developed between them. It premiered in Durham last month and opened in theaters on Friday.
Riddick , who turned 81 in March, figured in 1971 that if he could get Ellis and Atwater, the leaders of the opposing groups, to go along with desegregation the rest of the community would too.
“See, black people who had money were already starting to go to white schools,” Riddick recalled. “The poor black kids were the ones catching hell. C.P.’s kids were (catching hell), too, because they were white and poor. You had the race system playing out in one neighborhood and the class system playing out in the other.”
While it’s understandable that people would want to reach out and shake the hand of the man who met Cookie Lyon, if Riddick’s autograph should be sought after for anything, it should be for his ability to bring together two people who stood at opposite ends of the school desegregation issue; two people who hated each other; two people who hated him.
That’s okay, though, because he said he hated them, too - initially.
Over the course of 10 days of coercing, cajoling and cursing, he helped make them both see that, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, their children could all hang together - or they could hang separately.
Riddick, who’d served at Shaw University as director of extension education, was working as a consultant when someone from the U.S. Department of Education asked him to bring disparate factions together to talk about education, health care and affordable housing issues.
The Department of Education didn’t pick Durham: he did.
“I could’ve gone anywhere, but I had friends in Durham and thought that would make it easier,” he said.
Riddick was half-right. He had friends in Durham, but they weren’t interested in making it easier. “They made it clear to me. ‘Man, we’re not going to help you do this.’ They felt the schools needed to be funded equally, not integrated.”
Rockwell, who won an Oscar for his role in 2018′s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, apparently nailed C.P.’s character.
“When he started saying the N-word,” Riddick said, “I told him, ‘You say that word like you’ve used it before.’”
The star said: “Oh no no no,” and they both laughed often about that whenever they got together.
How did he and the real-life C.P. Ellis get along?
“We didn’t,” he laughed.
Ellis, Riddick said, used the N-word “all the time, all the time. Throughout our whole time together, C.P. never called my name. In the movie, they have him calling my name one time, at the very end, when he casts his vote to desegregate schools and he says ’Mr. Riddick, my vote is yes.″”
How, I asked, did he get along with Atwater, who took no mess from anybody?
“She didn’t trust me,” he said. “She thought I was some northerner trying to be big-time, when in reality I was born in Hertford County and my parents were tenant farmers.”
Remember the Carole King hit “Only Love Is Real?”
Loved the song, hated the message - because hate is real, too.
Take that night Atwater was fixing to cut Ellis’s throat, had already pulled out her knife to do so.
When I interviewed her in 2004 at a Duke University-sponsored event honoring Ellis for his work promoting racial healing, she told me about sitting in a city council meeting listening to Ellis call black people everything but a lamb gyro.
That might’ve been the least offensive thing he said.
Atwater said she took her knife from her pocketbook, stood up and started toward the podium, intending to cut Ellis’s throat mid-racial rant.
“I wasn’t one of those ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ people,” she admitted. “I am now, but I wasn’t then. I was getting ready to cut him.”
She would have, too, had city council member John “Shag” Stewart not interceded.
He “came down and grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘Daughter, don’t do that. That’s what they want you to do,’” she recalled.
C.P. didn’t end up dead. Ann didn’t end up with blood on her hands and Durham didn’t end up becoming synonymous with “intransigence” and “hatred.”
Instead, it is one of the best examples of what can happen when people are governed by love, not hate.
Okay, maybe Carole King was right after all.