Response to Durham cross burnings

The following announcement is circulating by e-mail:

A Community Response to the Recent Cross Burnings in Durham, NC

An Unlikely Friendship, an award-winning documentary film, will be shown in conjunction with a panel discussion with local community and
civil rights leaders.

When: Thursday, June 2nd from 7:00 – 9:00 pm
Where: B.N. Duke Auditorium at NC Central University in Durham
Donation: $1.00 to help offset security costs for the event
Organizing Partners: Character Development Group, The City of Durham, NC Central University, and Duke University

Contacts: Stacy Shelp-Peck, Character Development Group (919) 967-2110 or

Security Note: All attendees will have to go through a metal detector prior to entry into the bldg.

About An Unlikely Friendship
"Their story is one of redemption. It's one of the most important documentaries I've seen, and may be the most hopeful film in years." ­Studs Terkel

In the early 1970's, when Durham, N.C., was experiencing acrimonious racial tensions, Ann Atwater, a civil rights activist, and CP Ellis, the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan, were appointed to co-chair a community committee to resolve problems arising from a court-ordered desegregation of the schools. Through working together and getting to know each other as humans, they formed a deep and loving friendship that continues to this day.

An Unlikely Friendship has been screened at film festivals across the country and is the winner of several "best documentary short" awards.

An Unlikely Friendship is an inspiring film about the remarkable relationship between an outspoken African-American activist and an embittered Ku Klux Klansman. The story of the unexpected alliance and lifelong friendship that grows between them is both moving and empowering. Told in their own words, this rich and compelling story of the common-sense search for common ground and overcoming hatred is as down-to-earth as the protagonists themselves.

Panel Members and Special Guests:

Mayor William V. Bell – Durham – Invited
Dr. James Ammons - Chancellor NC Central University –Confirmed
Dr. Richard Brodhead – President of Duke University -Invited
Diane Bloom – Director and Filmmaker of An Unlikely Friendship - Confirmed
Ben Reese – Vice President in charge of Institutional Equity, Duke University - Confirmed
Ann Atwater – Civil Rights Activist and one of the stars of An Unlikley Friendship - Invited
Reverend Gene Hatley – Pastor of Barbee's Missionary Baptist Church, President of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Ministerial Alliance, and winner of the 2005 NAACP Community Service Award, Chapel Hill - Confirmed
Reverend James Pike – Pastor of Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church - Confirmed
Larry Holt – Chair of the Durham Human Relations Commission - Invited
Mary Ann Black – Associate VP of Community Affairs for Duke University Health System and former Durham County Commissioner – Confirmed



I went last night. The HS reports 400 people were there. It didn't seem like that many to me. St. Luke's congregants made up a sizeable chunk of the audience.

The take home message was that honest conversation about race (or any individual difference) heals.

It was an excellent documentary. Protagonists, Ann and CP both grew up being made to feel worthless—Ann by all white people, CP by middle class white people. The two found common ground in their pain over the poor treatment of their children in Durham schools. CP ends the charrette by offering to tear up his Klan card ‘if it means making schools better'.

The discussion after the documentary kept coming back to Durham schools. Mary Ann Black applauded the 91/92 merging of Durham city/county schools. A passionate audience member sought guidance from the panel for addressing and healing the racial rifts in the Durham Public School System. I thought the panel really offered her nothing.

Audience responses to the cross burnings ranged from ‘maybe it was a prank and things aren't so bad in Durham' to some hard to follow ‘ism' arguments and talk of food chains. Everyone seemed to agree that the perpetrators of the cross burnings need to find new Ann Atwater's to have new personal charrettes with.

Panel member, Reverend Gene Hatley, repeatedly expressed bitterness over the MLK Jr. Blvd. renaming process in Chapel Hill. He seemed most in touch with the visceral penetration of racism that I experience. An articulate audience member expressed his dismay and frustration that Governor Easley wasn't present. He thought this spoke volumes. (Easley was not on the invite list above.)

What struck me most about last night was how large schools and education figure in local racism. In my experience it seems that the biggest perpetrator of racism in this area is parental anxiety about education. No one believes our schools are ever good enough. The belief is strong that going to school with too many at risk children puts your own children at risk. For me, this anxiety says volumes about the personal anxiety that parents have about their own education and their own worthiness. I find it very telling that I have never met anyone, no matter how accomplished or certifiably ‘genius', who honestly feels certain of his/her worthiness.

I'm at a loss about what can be done to conquer racism and make public schools good for all children.

At the risk of going off the philosophical deep end this morning, I think Tenzin Gyatso, XIV Dalai Lama offers the best advice:

No matter what is going on
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country
Is spent on developing the mind
Instead of the heart
Be compassionate
Not just to your friends
But to everyone
Be compassionate
Work for peace
In your heart and in the world
And I say again
Never give up
No matter what is happening
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up

"Audience responses to the cross burnings ranged from ‘maybe it was a prank and things aren't so bad in Durham' to some hard to follow ‘ism' arguments and talk of food chains. "

Mary, were the audience members who were "pretend[ing] that this incident is not an act by white supremacists" shouted down by the crowd (or by Mark Chilton)?

Bill, that speaker merely threw it out as a possibility.
I think the point is that a lot of people would like to think the cross burnings are a prank because denial is always easier than facing the truth.
For what it's worth, I don't think it's really fair for anyone to permanently judge you on the basis of a few reactionary comments you make on OrangePolitics.
Almost everyone on this blog has said something thoughtless along the way...

I don't see that it matters if it were a prank. That idea of humor comes from the same hateful place as an act done in wrath.

Mary, thanks so much for attending and writing about this event. It's great to get a first-hand account, and you covered a lot of important points.

I would like to see the Durham community come together and discuss gang activity and violence. Many are being killed (particularly black teens) or injured. Racism is a nasty fact that must be hammered out of every corner. However the Durham community must have the same type reaction to the violence in their streets. Many more are dying or hurt by the real gang related violence and lawlessness in Durham than by Klan related acts of intimidation and violence. Find those responsible for cross burnings but get the gangs out of Durham.

CP Ellis died yesterday:

"Mr. Ellis, who worked as a labor union official, at one time was Exalted Grand Cyclops of a Durham Ku Klux Klan group. In 1971, he agreed to participate in a forum on school desegregation in Durham. Also in the group was Ann Atwater, a black civil rights activist who was well-known locally.

Mutual suspicion melted into respect during the 10 days of talks, as Mr. Ellis and Ms. Atwater became friends and Mr. Ellis became persuaded that whites, especially the poor, stood to gain from the civil rights movement more than under segregation."


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