Dr. King and the Klansman
Who would have thought that Clayborn Paul (CP) Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, would turn out to be one of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s greatest admirers?
Certainly not CP, who routinely called King “Martin Lucifer Coon” or worse. Surely none of CP’s fellow Klansmen who packed into the Durham Klavern Hall to listen to CP preach the gospel of hate could have foreseen the change to come.
Perhaps only King himself, who believed above all in the redemptive power of love, wouldn’t have been surprised by the path CP traveled.
King himself had undergone a transform of his own, and although it didn’t have the drama of CP’s turnaround, it was significant and largely unknown outside of the Black community.
King was born into an elite Black family in Atlanta, Georgia, at the time when that city was one of two showcases of “Negro Progress.” (The other one was Durham, where CP was born into poverty.)
Just Another Baptist Preacher
At Boston University, King wore tweed jackets and smoked a pipe, cultivating the image of a genteel intellectual. He politely declined invitations to “Ban the Bomb” rallies. King was too busy leading a different sort of student group: the Dialectical Society. They held weekly potlucks at which students discussed the issues of the day.
I once asked the civil rights pioneer, the Reverend Douglas Moore, what he thought of young Mr. King in those days. “Just another Baptist preacher,” replied King’s former (and more radical) classmate.
That was putting it mildly. Into the early 1960s, King was still making statements that came straight from his middle-class background, complete with stereotypes that even liberal whites were learning to avoid. He once scolded blacks for a general lack of hygiene: “They may not be able to buy perfume in Paris,” he said, “but they could all afford a nickel bar of soap.”
Educating a Klansman
Of course, that was not the King CP Ellis thought he knew. King was a monster, or, more precisely, the head of a monster that threatened the American Way of Life. Most of what CP knew about King came from a popular news commentator whose five-minute long “Viewpoint” CP rushed home from the gas station he owned to catch after the evening news.
“[King] is a sham, an agitator, a fellow traveller with known communists,” accused the man on TV, whose face and voice were known to whites throughout the South. His name was Jesse Helms and he would parlay his fame into a seat in the United States Senate.
CP’s hated of King was stoked nightly listening to Helms’ tirades.
“King can wave his Nobel Peace Prize to his heart’s content,” declared Helms, “[but his movement] is about as non-violent as the Marines landing on Iwo Jima, and it is only a ‘movement’ only in the sense that mob action is moving and spreading throughout the land.”
Non-Violence on Trial
As King followed a path of non-violent direct action he transformed himself from a bourgeois intellectual into the King we remember today, a man who reached across class and color lines to call America to justice. When he went to Memphis in late March 1968 it was to support striking sanitation workers, African-American and white.
On April 4, 1968, King was scheduled to be in Durham to help campaign for a long-time friend, a Black candidate running for governor of North Carolina. CP was relieved when he heard the news that plans had changed. King would not be visiting Durham; his presence was still required in Memphis. A week earlier, a march led by King had led to some violence with a few protesters breaking store windows.
King felt he needed to lead another march, making sure it was peaceful. The damage done on the first march was far greater than just a few broken windows. Helms said on TV that he could hear in King’s voice, “the crackle of anarchy and the threat of violence.” King told a friend, “non-violence is on trial” in Memphis.
A Toast to the Gunman
CP was working at his gas station when the news of King’s death come over the radio. An unknown gunman had shot King as the civil rights leaders stood on his motel balcony.
CP let out a cheer, like a football fan after a decisive touchdown. His phone began ringing almost immediately. He told the excited Klansmen on the other end of the line to come down to his gas station to celebrate the shooting. CP set out Coca-Cola crates for the men to sit on and they drank beer and laughed late into the night.
CP lifted his beer bottle into the air and made a toast: “To the gunman!” The men clinked bottles and gulped down the beer.
By 1971, CP had become the Exalted Cyclops of the Klan’s Durham “klavern.” When a program was announced to facilitate the court-ordered desegregation of the Durham public schools CP went to the initial meeting to make sure the plan didn’t work. Also at the meeting was Ann Atwater, a Black community organizer CP had battled for years. The program director, a risk-taking innovator named Bill Riddick wanted to get both sides on-board. He nominated — and people approved — Atwater and CP as co-chairs of the two-week program.
Both were repulsed by the idea and both initially refused. Eventually, CP signed on, after realizing he’d be in a much better position to sabotage the program if he were leading it. Atwater felt compelled to accept the appointment so that people didn’t think she was afraid of the klansman.
They steered clear of each other, and separately led discussion groups to talk about school problems. For the first time in his life CP was sitting in a room with Blacks and actually listening to them. He hated the experience. He hated being near them. He hated being forced to breath the same air with them. He hated their smell. Most of all, CP hated the fact that most of the problems voiced by Black parents, he agreed with. When a Black woman cried while describing how some teachers allowed children to mock her daughter’s threadbare clothing, CP knew that feeling first-hand. A Black man asked how come their inner-city school had ancient typewriters that barely worked, while an all-white school in the affluent suburbs had new machines. CP hadn’t known about that and was also angry. The experience of identifying with Black complaints was repeated over and over. Each time, CP tried to convince himself that it meant nothing.
The problem was that CP knew better. His father had worked in Durham’s cotton mills for pennies a day and had died early of brown lung. Though he never worked in the mills himself, he knew what wealthy whites called him when they thought he couldn’t hear. Linthead — which was a Durham equivalent to “poor white trash.” In the mills, tufts of cotton would get caught in workers’ hair. Even living nearby, as CP did, meant that you’d occasionally have bits of fluff stuck on your head. Combing it out had no effect. Being born a linthead was like being born Black. It wasn’t something one could change, it was a permanent state of being. Many middle-to-upper class whites may have hated Blacks. But they despised and ridiculed lintheads — and CP had felt that sting his entire life.
His progress up the ladder of the Klan was an attempt to climb out of the social class he had been born into. As Exalted Cyclops, CP met regularly with the white powers-that-be in Durham. But the meetings were in secret, usually at night. When he was summoned to their homes to discuss Klan strategy, he was told to use the back door. He believed their explanation that for political reasons the relationship had to be kept secret. Or he pretended to believe that explanation. He even had himself convinced. Until the school meetings and the conversations he began having with his nemesis, Ann Atwater, in the gym when no one else was around.
Atwater hated CP, but she was a Christian, a follower of King, and believed in redemption. Helping CP became her mission. Several other leaders in the Black community who had never had a conversation with a Klansman, now were listening to and watching CP. They, too, knew what King would have wanted them to do.
CP complained that Black students had organized a gospel music night during the meetings, but that he wasn’t allowed to present information about his culture. Like what? he was asked. CP answered that he wanted to erect a display about the Ku Klux Klan. Atwater led the group in approving the idea.
Speaking on the last night of the program, CP announced that lintheads like him had more in common with poor Blacks than with rich whites. (He had tried convincing his Klansmen to share his vision, to turn the group into a class-based organization instead of one based on race. He was lucky to make it out of the Klavern hall alive.) In front of the stunned crowd, he tore up his KKK membership card.
After the Klan
Life after leaving the Klan was never easy for CP, but he told me that he believed he had done the right thing. While doing research for a book about CP’s life, and the resulting friendship with Ann Atwater, I visited Durham frequently. We took long drives around town so CP could point out where pivotal moments in his life had occurred. On one of these drives he told me about reading Martin Luther King’s speeches and how they resonated with him. “Everything he said made sense,” CP told me. “Dr. King was a great man.”
On one of our last drives around Durham, I asked CP what accomplishment made him most proud.
“That would have to be the fact that I negotiated Durham’s first paid holiday for Martin Luther King’s birthday,” he said. CP had a good sense of humor and an appreciation of life’s ironies. He smiled before continuing, “Some white workers said they didn’t like King and weren’t going to take the day off. I said, ‘Okay, you idiots, go ahead and work on that day!’”
I laughed. Then he laughed at the memory — and the craziness of it all. Soon we were both laughing so hard we were crying.
CP died in November of 2005. Happy Martin Luther King Day, CP. Your journey was the dream Dr. King didn’t live to see.
Osha Gray Davidson is the author of The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South.