C.P. Ellis was born in 1927 and was 53-years-old at the time of this interview with Studs Terkel. For Terkel, America's foremost oral historian, this remains the most memorable and moving of all the interviews he's done in a career spanning more than seven decades, for C.P. Ellis had once been the exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, N.C. During the interview, Terkel learned that Ellis had been born extremely poor in Durham, North Carolina; had struggled all his life to feed his family; had felt shut out of American society and had joined the Klan to feel like somebody. But later he got involved in a local school issue and reluctantly, gradually, began to work on a committee with a black activist named Ann Atwater, whom he despised at the time. Eventually, after many small epiphanies, he realized that they shared a common concern for their children, common goals as human beings. More surprising still, Ellis became a union organizer for a janitor's union—a long way from his personal philosophical roots. The Ellis-Atwater story is best documented in The Best of Enemies, a book by Osha Gray Davidson that tells of the unlikely friendship that developed between Ann and C.P. Ellis, when they first met in the 1960's. Apparently, their commonalities as oppressed human beings proved far stronger than the racial hatred that initially divided them.
"Why I Quit the Klan”—An Interview with C. P. Ellis By Studs Terkel (1980)