The Best of Enemies

The Best of Enemies

Race and Redemption in the New South

Book - 2018
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C. P. Ellis grew up in the poor white section of Durham, North Carolina, and as a young man joined the Ku Klux Klan. Ann Atwater, a single mother from the poor black part of town, quit her job as a household domestic to join the civil rights fight. During the 1960s, as the country struggled with the explosive issue of race, Ellis and Atwater met on opposite sides of the public school integration issue. Their encounters were charged with hatred and suspicion. In an amazing set of transformations, however, each of them came to see how the other had been exploited by the South's rigid power structure, and they forged a friendship that flourished against a backdrop of unrelenting bigotry.
Publisher: Chapel Hill, NC : The University of North Carolina Press, [2018]
Edition: Paperback edition.
ISBN: 9781469646602
1469646609
9780807858691
0807858692
Branch Call Number: 305.8 DAVIDSON 2018
Characteristics: vii, 336 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm

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m
mpye
Jun 10, 2019

This is a remarkable book for its approach, the depth of its research and its hopeful message. Having read it, I can’t wait now to see the movie!
Although it is non-fiction, it never gets stodgy and is extremely readable throughout. Even as a fiction junkie I relished reading all of its 300 pages and highly recommend it. The book has particular relevance for someone like me who was an idealistic, if naïve, teenager when most of its action was unfolding in the 1960s.
From far away, America’s race relations and its social upheaval in that decade were extremely difficult to fathom. I grew up in the UK where there were certainly race issues but we largely avoided the associated marches, rioting and deaths. This book explains both the background, the events and the causes comprehensibly without ever simplifying matters or labelling protagonists.
The depth of research is illustrated by the book’s extensive bibliography and end notes. The story sensibly focuses on one particular city, Durham, North Carolina throughout that tumultuous decade and into the early 1970s. We learn how Durham’s Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis came initially to hate and fear one another.
The approach is unique: it does not idealize any of the people it describes, even Martin Luther King’s faults are laid bear, nor does it follow any conventional assessment of that period.
The book’s basic premise is that in the US poor whites and poor blacks have far more in common than they have differences. At the root they are both from the same class and in daily life they struggle with the same issues of poverty, employment, housing and education. Race issues are tangential at best.
The story also illustrates how race differences have been exploited for centuries by an elite. In the last 100 years or so that elite has consisted of both white and black people. There are ominous overtones of how similar issues today, like immigration and differing religious beliefs, are exploited, although the author does not venture there.
The quotes at the start of the book and each chapter are highly relevant and thought provoking. The photos are also very revealing.
The ultimate message, that polar opposites can come together with outstanding results in both the personal and public arena, is a very optimistic and inspiring one. Ann’s recollection of sitting by C.P.’s casket in the Introduction resonates throughout. The power of empathic listening along with a willingness to undergo personal transformation is this book’s legacy.

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