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Statue for two heroes

March 29, 2019

      Bill Riddick was saddened that he hadn't done more for Ann Atwater.

      Although Riddick is the one who brought Atwater and C.P. Ellis together so they could change Durham for the better, he knew that they - and thousands of nameless foot soldiers - were the ones who saved Durham public schools and possibly the city of Durham. They certainly ensured that tens of thousands of Durham children could have access to a better education.

      The sadness in his voice was palpable as he talked recently about seeing Atwater, the firebrand who'll be portrayed by the acclaimed and glamorous actress Taraji P. Henson, for the first time after about 20 years.

      It was in the 1990s and it was obvious, he said, that the community activist was not faring  well physically or financially. Among his regrets, he said, was that he hadn't taken her with him out on the road and around the country to talk about the remarkable events that had led to Durham schools being desegregated.

      People, he said, would have paid money to hear the remarkable story of how C.P. Ellis, a ku klux klansman, and Atwater, a civil rights and community activist, cast aside their differences and worked to ensure that Durham wouldn't go up in flames, its schools wouldn't end up shuttered.

      When I later interviewed Atwater a couple of times, it was obvious that she was not thriving. As generous as this community is, there's no doubt people would have rallied to help her - just as a bunch of Duke University divinity school students were doing when I wrote about her in 2007. They were moving furniture into her home and helping to make it handicapped accessible.

      I noted the irony of this indefatigable woman who used to walk the streets of Durham registering people to vote now being unable to walk from room to room in her own house.

      Ellis is to be lauded for not going the route of his contemporaries in places such as Virginia, where they chose a scorched-earth policy that shut down their public school systems rather than integrate.

      It couldn't have been easy for C.P. after his change-of-heart when he went to the next klanbake and said "Hey y'all: guess what I just did."

      But he did it.

      It's too late for those of us who wish we'd done more for Atwater while she lived, but not too late to do something for her now: You know how these young whippersnappers are rushing hither and yon yanking down statues of people whose history they find objectionable even though they've been dead hundreds of years?

      Why not put that energy into erecting statues for people who truly deserve them?

      What on earth would be more fitting than a statue in a prominent place in Durham of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis joining hands in unity?

      Ooooh, chills.

      Can a Nobel Peace Prize be awarded retroactively and posthumously? If not, erecting a statue in Durham to honor these two heroes would be the next best thing.

      Their relationship, from beginning to end, should be hailed as an example to the world of what is possible.

       Of course, honoring them with just a danged statue would be an insult to the memory of both. City leaders have to be as indefatigable as Atwater was to ensure that housing in Durham doesn't become so expensive that modern-day C.P.'s and Anns - the hoi polloi - are priced out of their neighborhoods.

      Does anyone think Durham would be the open, progressive city it is now had Ellis not changed, had Atwater not been so determined and selfless in fighting for right?

     Look around Durham in 2019. Every good thing in the city owes a debt of gratitude to the selfless work of Ellis, Atwater, Riddick and the scores of unsung, unnamed heroes. A statue of those two would honor all of them.

      Build a statue, Durham.

 

 

 

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