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How a White Supremacist Became a Civil Rights Activist

The story of a KKK leader’s transformation shows us that we need not live forever with the kind of violence we saw in Charleston this month.
By Araz Hachadourian / yesmagazine.org
Jun 30, 2015
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How a White Supremacist Became a Civil Rights Activist

The contact hypothesis, a popular theory in the field of psychology, proposes that people become more tolerant toward each other when they have experience working toward a common goal. Claiborne Paul Ellis, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, is a prime example of how the theory works.

After 10 days of working with Atwater, Ellis overcame his hatred.

Born in 1927 in Durham County, North Carolina, Ellis was raised in a poor white family where racism was not only accepted but encouraged. His father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ellis inherited many of his worldviews. As an adult, Ellis worked multiple jobs at once to support his wife and four children. Just as he had learned to do in childhood, he blamed black people—and specifically the civil rights movement—for his family’s rough economic situation.

Ellis joined the Ku Klux Klan as an adult and eventually became the Exalted Cyclops, or elected president, of Durham’s KKK chapter.

Ellis wasn’t alone in his racist views against black people. In fact, because of his status as a the president of Durham County’s KKK chapter, many people saw him as a leader in the community. That’s why, in 1971, Ellis was asked to help decide how to spend a $78,000 government grant to aid in school desegregation.

He was elected co-chair of the committee along with black civil rights activist Ann Atwater. After 10 days of working with Atwater, Ellis overcame his hatred and prejudice, denounced his KKK membership, and eventually went on to become a community organizer for the civil rights movement in Durham County.

In this video, Roman Krznaric, author of the book Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, explains what Ellis’ transformation tells us about the impact empathy and contact can have in overcoming prejudice.

 

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