The man was C. P. Ellis, former Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan and the woman was Ann Atwater, civil rights advocate and spokesperson for the desegregation of Durham schools in North Carolina.
At one time these two were bitter enemies. She once pulled a knife on him at a Durham City Council meeting. At their first discussion meeting in 1971 he brought a machine gun.
Not only did they become friends, they joined together to fight prejudice, injustice and discrimination. “When I joined the Klan,” Ellis said, “I thought every black person in the country was evil and dirty. I just assumed it. We are taught these things as children, and when we get older, we sometimes carry these thoughts with us and never get rid of them.”
Their relationship bears witness to the fact that we can get rid of the prejudices in our lives. What brought about change was a growing respect for the other even as they battled and finally came to the realization that they were very much alike.
“Ann and I were really thrown together and forced to work together. During those days it became clear to me that she had some of the identical problems that I had.” These served to teach Ellis that he and Atwater were fighting a common enemy and could actually gain strength from one another.
For Ann, that strength came from her faith. “God had a plan for both of us, for us to get together,” she said, speaking at his funeral. It is rather interesting that having the same problems ultimately pulled them together.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul wrote that to know Christ is to “share his suffering.” It is a strange fellowship, indeed, but one that brings us together with each other and with Christ.
“What had I spent all my life fighting people like Ann for?” Ellis once said. The answer might be that until he met Ann, he didn’t even know what “people like Ann” were like.
Do you and I know someone we don’t like? Maybe we should find out what we have in common. It doesn’t seem possible, but after hearing this story, you have to have hope. Rev. Nichols is Minister Emeritus of First Christian Church, Temple, where he was senior minister for 23 years before retiring. He writes a religious column for several newspapers.