The Best of Enemies: A Conversation with Author Osha Davidson

For four years, freelance writer and author Osha Gray Davidson delved deep into the complicated and unlikely history of Ann Atwater, a Black grassroots activist who worked with a Klu Klux Klan leader in the 70s to help desegregate local schools in Durham, N.C. Davidson’s book, The Best of Enemies, is now a feature film starring award-winning actress Taraji P. Henson. Davidson talked to The Crisis about why he felt the need to document the seemingly odd relationship between Atwater and the Klansman C.P. Ellis.

Crisis: Why did you write this book? I grew up White and Jewish in Iowa in the 1960s when there was a much stronger African American and Jewish alliance working for civil rights. My father served on the Des Moines Human Rights Commission and Judge Luther Glanton Jr., the head of Iowa’s NAACP and his wife, Rep. Wille Stevenson Glanton, the first African-American woman to serve in the Iowa House of Representatives, were family friends. So, I grew up at least knowing that what we were being taught in school about “equal justice for all” was, at best, aspirational. At worst, it was pure propaganda. How did you discover the story of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis? In the early ‘90s, I was writing a book review of Studs Terkel’s, Race. He had a few pages about Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis in the book. What struck me first was, of course, how unlikely the premise was – a KKK leader becoming friends with a militant Black female community organizer. But what really hooked me was the context in which their relationship occurred. To oversimplify just a bit, it was the intersection of class, race and gender that made the story significant. What do you want people to take away from The Best of Enemies? Our patriarchal society puts the focus on male leadership in the civil rights era (and every other era!), but I tried to highlight the primary role that women played in the struggle, often behind the scenes. I hope Whites come away understanding that if they don’t know Black history they can’t know American history. I also hope they understand and challenge their own White privilege and the institutional racism that continues to uphold White supremacy. The story is set in the 1970s years after the Civil Rights Act passed. Were North Carolinians more open or more resistant to change? It really was the best of times and the worst of times. A decade and a half after Brown v. Board was handed down, and only token change had been made in desegregating schools. But Durham’s Black leaders, including Ann Atwater, had been pushing for change through boycotts, marches, never letting up, for years. I don’t know that White North Carolinians were necessarily more open to change, but Black North Carolinians made the status quo untenable. What role did the NAACP play in the story? Without the NAACP, this story would have never happened. W.E.B. DuBois himself visited Durham and helped inspire a new more confrontational ethos among the Black leaders many decades before the charrette. Of course, the lawsuits the NAACP brought across the South, including in North Carolina, set the stage for what happened in Durham. The charrette itself was a local effort that was not technically connected to the NAACP, but the group set the stage for what happened in Durham in 1971. Talk about the role of women in creating community change. I was already aware of the role women played in the movement, going back to the earliest days. Ann was an exceptional human being. I’ve never met anyone quite like her. But there were hundreds of Black women doing the heavy lifting, largely unrecognized because, too often, it’s men who’ve written the history. That’s beginning to change, with author/scholars like Nell Irvin Painter, Margot Lee Shetterly and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. — Natalie P. McNeal is the author of The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life.

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