Bill Riddick did the impossible. He made friends out of a black civil rights activist and a KKK leader. It was Durham, North Carolina, 1971, and a debate was brewing over school integration. A fire destroyed large swaths of the community's all-black school, and parents just wanted their kids to have somewhere safe to learn. Parents of white students, meanwhile, were concerned the sudden influx of students would hamper their own kids' education, not to mention the preeminent issue they had with the color of their skin.
Ann Atwater was the leader of Operation Breakthrough, a group which gave poor African-Americans a voice, and C.P. Ellis was Durham’s Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. As you can imagine, they came down on opposite ends of the school debate. Riddick knew he had to help. Almost as soon as he got a call from labor union leaders in Durham, he made his way to the city to act as mediator. He started a charrette, a public debate on the issue that lasted 10 days, and made the unimaginable decision to appoint both Atwater and Ellis as co-chairs. The forum got off to a rocky start, but it resulted in meaningful reforms for the community and helped ease race relations. The most surprising thing to come out of the whole affair, however, was how it turned the co-chairs from enemies into lifelong friends.
The inspiring story is recalled in Osha Davidson’s book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the South,” now a feature film starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell.
Riddick's visit played a positive role in Durham's history. But, his initial meeting with Atwater and Ellis was hardly love at first sight.
"Neither one of them liked me," Riddick told Townhall. In fact, he says his first meeting with Atwater and Ellis "was one of the worst professional days that I’ve had."
But quitting wasn't an option.
"I had to go home and look in the mirror at myself and get my biases squared away where I saw them as worthwhile human beings and that I just disagreed with what their methods were," he recalled.
Riddick knew how important it was that the story be accurately captured on screen. That's why he took matters into his own hands when he first saw how actor Babou Cessay, who plays Riddick in the film, was portraying him. Riddick admitted he was "kind of unhappy" about Cessay's performance at the early stages of filming. So, the two went for a walk.
"I think what he wasn’t getting to start with was there are two strong personalities who will shout you down if you’re not used to that," Riddick noted. "And I thought he had to be a little more forceful in his tone. And I don’t mean screaming or anything like that. Respectfully, y’know, strong in what he was trying to say. And he did that, he did it very well."
He was "very pleased" with the results, because throughout the film Cessay strikes the right tone between compassion and strength.
As it develops in the film, Riddick helped Atwater and Ellis realize they had more in common than they thought, not least of which was their concern for their children.
"I think about the sixth or seventh day they recognized they had the same problem with the school system," Riddick noted. "That their children were failing and that something had to be done. And I think that’s when they started seeing each other as humans. And seeing each other as maybe having the same problem and we must solve it."
Solve it they did. Despite the odds, the panel voted in favor of school desegregation.
Some moments in the film seemed to be dramatized for movie magic. But, I was surprised to find that Ellis actually did rip up his KKK membership card in front of the entire auditorium. Riddick remembers it as one of the most powerful things he's ever seen.
"I was sitting about five feet from C.P. and when he tore the card up it was one of the most…I can’t describe what my feelings were, but it had a tremendous impact on me," Riddick said. "And to the day, I can’t really explain what I was thinking and what went on. It was a dramatic thing and I didn’t believe that this was happening. I just about thought I had drifted off into another world there for a moment...But it was real."
Clearly, the 1971 charrette in Durham was a success. Could society benefit from one today?
"Well, it’s just a country-wide thing if you were to do a charrette today," he explained. "But 10 days, that’s not feasible anymore. I think our problem today is individuals and that we have gotten careless in how we treat other people and we think about other people without knowing them."
The Best of Enemies is in theaters Friday, April 5.