How do two people at the opposite ends of a political spectrum—a former local Ku Klux Klan leader and a black civil-rights activist—become friends, against all odds?
In the summer reading selection for incoming freshmen, The Best of Enemies, author Osha Gray Davidson chronicled the development of this unusual relationship and its progression from distrust to mutual respect.
This year, the Summer Reading Program and Campus Council focused on bringing the book, set in Durham, directly to students. Activities during first-year orientation included a tour of the city to see significant locations from the book and a talk from Ann Atwater, whose friendship with the late C.P. Ellis is the focus of the book.
Most recently, DukeReads, a new program developed through the Duke Alumni Association to foster intellectual conversations, brought Davidson and Atwater to campus for the program's "inaugural chat." At the event, which was attended by some 350 students, faculty members, and Durham residents, Davidson and Atwater stressed the importance of communication in overcoming racial tensions, especially in the early 1970s amid court-ordered desegregation and its accompanying turmoil—the backdrop of Atwater's and Ellis' first encounters.
"There was a lot of talk going on but not a whole lot of listening," Davidson said. "That was the key to this story. Ann and C.P. not only talked, but they both listened. And when they listened, amazing things happened."
Atwater recalled her misgivings when Davidson approached her about the book, admitting that, initially, she was wary because of his skin color. "I didn't trust Osha because he was white," she said. "During that time, I wasn't trusting too many white people.
"But after he played with my two grandchildren, and they gave him their pictures and everything, ...I said, 'Well, if he loved them good enough to take their pictures, I reckon I can tell him a few stories.' So I started talking, and I haven't shut up yet."
The video podcast of the discussion is available on Duke's iTunes University site.
January 31, 2008