By Myrna Oliver, Times Staff Writer
C.P. Ellis, whose startling metamorphosis from Ku Klux Klan officer to civil rights activist was described in the 1996 book "Best of Enemies" and a subsequent documentary, "An Unlikely Friendship," has died. He was 78.
Ellis died Thursday at Durham Regional Hospital in Durham, N.C., of undisclosed causes. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease and used a wheelchair in recent years.
Both Ellis' "enemy" and "friend" of the book and film titles was Ann Atwater, a black advocate of desegregation in Durham.
The event that converted the city's oft-praised "odd couple" from adversaries to allies was a 1971 community discussion session about the violence occurring as Durham tried to integrate its schools. Ellis and Atwater co-chaired the 10 days of 12-hour talks, forging not only the unusual friendship but profoundly changing Ellis' deeply rooted segregationist thinking.
Ellis and Atwater had been such bitter foes that she once pulled a knife on him at a Durham City Council meeting, and Ellis brought a machine gun to their first 1971 discussion session.
They became such close comrades that, after the meetings, Ellis renounced his position as Exalted Grand Cyclops of the KKK, repudiated segregation and joined Atwater in working to desegregate the Durham school system.
They continued to speak jointly at civil rights seminars and meetings for three decades.
Rest in peace, Mr Ellis.