How Bill Riddick brought together a community and changed the course of a city.
Posted in , Apr 3, 2019
The Best of Enemies, a new movie starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, tells the story of how an unlikely friendship developed between Ann Atwater, an African American activist, and C.P. Ellis, a Ku Klux Klan leader.
A charette—a meeting in which all members of a community get to vote on the outcome of an issue—sparked Ellis and Atwater's friendship. In 1971, the city of Durham held a charette to determine whether Durham schools would desegregate.
Bill Riddick, who ran a consulting firm and had successfully facilitated several charettes in other communities, was the organizer who brought Ellis and Atwater together. Riddick chose Atwater and Ellis to co-chair the charette because of their leadership roles in Durham. The charette lasted ten days and at the final meeting Ellis tore up his KKK membership card and voted to desegregate Durham. Ellis and Atwater remained friends for the rest of their lives. Atwater even delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
At the time, Riddick was surprised by the outcome, but in the years since, he has come to credit a higher power with what happened in Durham during those 10 days.
“Forty-eight years ago I really thought it was me,” Riddick told Guideposts.org. “As I have become more God-fearing and have worked harder in church the last 20 years, I realize that the Lord gave me a grace and helped me.”
Riddick believes Atwater, a devout Christian, had a much better sense of God’s presence in their midst.
“I didn't realize when we got started that Ann was extremely religious,” Riddick said. “But now I look back at it, she had a lot more sense than I had about what she was doing.”
While the friendship between Ellis and Atwater became the subject of a book, play and now, a movie, Riddick moved on, continuing his work in other communities and working in student health at the University of North Carolina. He didn’t see the pair again until nearly two decades after the charette.
Now 81 years old, Riddick’s role in the story is finally coming to light, and he was able to offer guidance and input on the film, consulting with Babou Ceesay, the actor who plays him in the movie.
“It is strange to see somebody playing you,” Riddick said. “But I had the opportunity to talk to him during the film. He took my notes and changed his style. He came as close as I could come to being myself.”
The movie focuses on the relationship between Ellis and Atwater and the transformation both of them undertook. But Riddick also had to change in order to successfully facilitate the charette.
“I had as much bias as they had,” Riddick said. “Obviously my bias with [Ellis] is easy to sort out. But I didn't particularly like the way Ann looked at things. So the first thing I had to do was get rid of my own biases.”
Riddick vividly remembers a realization he had after the first day of discussions in Durham.
“I went home that night and said, ‘I got the same problem that these two people got,’” he said. “And until I'm able to harness my own feelings and have greater respect for these individuals, then I'm not going to be successful.”
The experience changed the course of his life.
“From that day, I have tried to do that as a human being to accept every person for who they are,” Riddick said. “Even if we disagree, that doesn't mean they're a bad person.”
The Best of Enemies has given Riddick the chance to reflect on an experience that changed a city and many lives, including his own.
“I've lived a long time. I didn't recognize how fortunate I have been until I became a believer,” Riddick said. “I just thought I was smart and that I could do things. And I realize now that none of that was mine. And I'm so grateful.”