God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
Growing up in a southern black Baptist church, I often heard my elders repeat this famous line penned by English poet William Cowper. I was reminded of these proverbial words again after watching the film “The Best of Enemies,” which is based on the true story of the miraculous friendship that emerged in 1971 between Durham, North Carolina, civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and Ku Klux Klan president C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell).
Atwater and Ellis were on the frontlines of the public school integration battle in Durham after a fire destroyed most of the all-black East End Elementary building. Looking at civil rights history up to this point, a racial alliance between these Durham adversaries was just as unlikely as a partnership between Arkansas governor Orval Faubus and his state’s NAACP conference branch president Daisy Bates during the 1957 Little Rock Nine crisis. However, through an intensive community charrette, a lifelong bond was established between Atwater and Ellis that stamped out hate.
Atwater, who passed away in 2016, is not as well known as some of the black women who were seminal figures in the civil rights movement such as Bates, Coretta Scott King, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, Ella Baker, Dorothy Height and Fannie Lou Hamer. Atwater’s persona in her style of activism was very similar to Hamer’s, a sharecropper who co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Both women were fiery orators and dauntlessly stood against repulsive racist oppression and segregation in the South.
In “A Voice That Could Stir an Army,” Maegan Parker Brooks’ rhetorical biography of Hamer, Brooks quotes historian J. Todd Moye, who says that Hamer had “a unique ability to define the problems that affected African-Americans in the Delta in their own vernacular.” In an early city hall scene in “The Best of Enemies,” Atwater unflinchingly walks up to the front and turns the chair around of a white council member who refuses to face her. “Now what we’re talking about is important,” she says with valiant conviction, “and you gone damn well listen to us!”
“The Best of Enemies” not only focuses on the conflict Atwater had with Ellis, white council members, and the Klan, but it also provides a historical context regarding the educational and economic issues that still divide our nation.
In 1971, Atwater was still fighting for black students in Durham to have access to school resources they should have been receiving as a result of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Today, public schools in the South are unfortunately regressing back to segregation. According to the 2017 report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights, more than one in three black students attend “intensely segregated” schools, and Latino students, who comprise 27 percent of students in the South, are more likely to be segregated than their black peers.
Duke and UNC researchers published a 2018 study titled “School Segregation in The Era of Immigration and School Choice: North Carolina, 1998-2016” and found that statewide segregation between white and black students increased by 25 percent during these years. The segregation rates between white and Latino students more than tripled. A dominant connecting factor in school resegregation is poverty, as federal statistics show that the number of schools in poor districts serving minority students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014.
In the film, Atwater tries to reach common ground with Ellis by pointing out that he and his family had the same financial challenges as the black citizens he claimed to despise. It wasn’t just economic straight talk, however, that began to open Ellis’ eyes. He eventually came to realize that he shared something else in common with Atwater that was much more powerful: their faith.
“This here does the talking for me,” Atwater declares to Ellis one evening while waving a Bible in his face. “Same God made you, made me.”
I’m sure the Bible did a lot of “talking” to Ellis when he renounced the Klan and remained friends with Atwater until his death in 2005. As I have learned more about their friendship, these words from inspirational writer William Arthur Ward come to mind: “Criticize me, and I may not like you … Love me and I may be forced to love you.”
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at email@example.com. @JjSmojc