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Thoughtful Bastards: American Terror: Remembering Segregation And Finding Heros In N.C.

Some institutions and systems are so evil they defy comprehension.

Some institutions and systems are so evil they defy comprehension. The incomprehensibility of oppressive systems is one of their most dangerous characteristics because therein lies the place where denial becomes possible.  There’s almost an inverse relationship between the horror of a given institution or system, and the recognition of that horror. This problem can become more acute when these institutions fall into history because memories fade and people who actually lived through horrific epochs pass away. For this reason, despite mountains of testimony, documentation, and film and photographic records, there are people who today deny that events like the Armenian genocide and Jewish Holocaust ever happened.

I’m loath to engage in the dismal moral calculation of comparing one Holocaust to another, suffice it to say that by “Holocaust” I refer to a great massacre.  America has seen two Holocausts, the first was extermination of millions of natives, the second was the slave trade.  Some may argue that slavery isn’t the equivalent of death, and I grant that observation, but the American slave trade was an organized wholesale annihilation of freedom and culture for millions. It was a system of terror that survived on brutality and death. You can call it something else if you wish.

Both American Holocausts produced pervasive systems of oppression and destructed that survived well into the 20th century, remnants of which still exist. The system that supplanted the abolition of slavery was Segregation and Jim Crow.

Since it’s the week of Martin Luther King’s birthday, and we have a presidential candidate who denounces passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act, I think it’s an appropriate time to revisit segregation and review the best book I’ve ever read on the subject. If you’re only going to read one book ever about struggle against segregation in America, read:  “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson.  Davidson’s book is an ambitious attempt to examine the origin, nature, and struggle against segregation by telling the story of C.P Ellis, a poor white man who rose to the rank of an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, a poor black woman who blossomed into an energetic community activist. In the middle of one of the nation’s worst political and social upheavals Ellis and Atwater met, fought, reconciled, and eventually collaborated in an effort to desegregate and improve Durham North Carolina’s public schools.

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“The Best of Enemies weaves history”, biography, social and political criticism, and class struggle into a compelling narrative. Davidson gives us two biographies, a history of Durham N.C., Jim Crow, class struggle, the KKK, and the civil rights struggle all in one 298 page book.  This book is a comprehensive survey of segregation and the “New South” that weaves the biographies of C.P. and Ann into a historical account of the post war rise of the New South defined by Jim Crow and segregation. The complexities of segregation are difficult to relate but Davidson sets up a narrative that crosses back and forth between the biographies and the broader histories in a wonderfully complimentary exposition. When he needs to explain why Ann or C.P. are doing what they doing, he refers back to the historical component, and when he needs to put a face on segregation and Jim Crow as “as-lived” experiences he slips back into the biographies. This is an ambitious effort that largely succeeds although the reader might feel a little mired in minutiae at times. One of Davidson’s more subtle accomplishments is his success in weaving class struggle into his narrative. Segregation was not just a means by which whites oppressed blacks, but also a means by which the white elite kept the poor struggling with each other along racial and ethnic divisions.

The dominant feature of segregation however was its oppression southern blacks. Segregation was a system where a bus driver could shoot dead a black soldier during WWII for refusing to move to the back of the bus and be acquitted by an all-white jury in just 28 minutes. It was a place where C.C. Spaulding, a wealthy black Durham president of the all black Mutual Insurance Company, and advisor to President Roosevelt, could be beaten savagely by a soda fountain clerk for drinking his Coka-Cola in the white section of the café. It was a place where 33 black college students were shot, (three killed) by police while demonstrating against a segregated bowling alley in 1968. It remains a place where white students hang nooses from trees to intimidate black students, and district attorneys threaten to ruin black students lives and try to lock black high school students up for 22 years for getting into schoolyard fights.  And it was a place where 19 years after segregated schools were supposed to have been outlawed C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater were still trying to desegregate Durham’s public schools.

In 1970 C.P. Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops and Ann Atwater the ferocious local civil rights activist were both invited to join a “Charrette”.  The Charrettes were committees that local organizers assembled to work through community issues and resolve differences. The term “Charrette” comes from an old French term for the carriage rides French legislators used to take together, during which differences and legislation were hammered out. Charrettes were officially recognized by local governments as part of the Human Relations Commissions that were the result of mandates flowing out of the Civil Rights act. Joe Becton, the new director of Durham’s Human Relations Commission had seen the Exalted Cyclops and Atwater at many of the public meetings and debates about desegregating the Durham’s public schools. In a stroke of genius he invited these two super-polar opposites to join the Charrette. Each knew the other was invited, and they hated each other. But as Becton had calculated each of them was afraid to let the other join the Charrette without providing some balance. In the beginning C.P and Ann spent most of their time fighting but as time went by C.P. began to realize that his kids and Ann’s kids were facing the same problems, for the same reason. Segregation wasn’t just about black and white, it was also about rich and poor. Blacks may have been segregated from whites, but that same system kept wealthy whites segregate from poor whites. This meant that most of the resources were going to the schools the wealthy sent their kids to, not the schools that C.P. and Ann sent their schools. Davidson does a fantastic job of battling the reader’s temptation to stereotype C.P. as stupid racist. Without romanticizing him as a character, he simply reveals C.P’s humanity, which is not easy to do with an Exalted Cyclops. C.P.’s realization that he and Ann’s children are facing the same circumstances leads him to suspect that he and Ann might be sharing some circumstances as well and the resulting story of courage, risk, and compassion is as inspirational as it is educational.

It troubles me that young people are Ron Paul’s biggest block of supporters. It’s impossible for young Americans to really know segregation, although Davidson’s book gives us window into it, it can’t really be known if you didn’t experience it.  It’s hard to believe that such a country could have existed here in the United States south of the Mason Dixon Line but exist it did, (and is some ways still does). Davidson’s book is a must-read because even a small window into the reality of segregation demolishes the sophomoric excuses the Paul’s offer for allowing its existence. “Best of Enemies” is a comprehensive, beautifully written and constructed, and extremely relevant, but there’s a little history you won’t find in Davidson’s book.  About the time C.P. Ellis was rising to the rank of Exalted Cyclops in the town of Durham, Ron Paul was getting his medical degree at Duke University on the other side town. Unlike those of us who can only read about segregation Paul actually saw it, and lived in it. Ron Paul was actually in Durham when some of the events described in this book took place. The Exalted Cyclops would go on to renounce segregation and risk his life to end it. Paul went on to denounce the civil rights legislation that helped end segregation and sponsor a racist newsletter in the 90s. If you take voting seriously, you’re gonna want to look into that, and I suggest “Best of Enemies” as starting point.

This blog was written by Paul Udstrand and originally published on Thoughtful Bastards.