What Forgiveness Costs

This column first appeared in the Durham Herald Sun, December 15, 2013, 10 days after the death of Nelson Mandela.

By Ann Atwater

Fifty years ago, when I was marching in the streets of Durham for fair housing, education, and voting rights, Nelson Mandela was standing up in South Africa for the same things. He went to jail for twenty-seven years, then came out of that tomb to become President of South Africa. When he was leaving his cell on Robyn Island, he said to his jailer, “I forgive you because I refuse to let hate continue to imprison me.” Mandela knew the freedom of forgiveness. But he also knew its cost.

The same day Mandela died in South Africa last week, The Best of Enemies, a play about my unlikely friendship with C.P. Ellis, opened here in Durham. I was so glad to be there with C.P.’s children and Bill Riddick, the man who brought us together, last Friday night. And I am honored that Mayor Bell declared December 6, 2013, “Ann Atwater Day” in Durham. But Mandela’s death has me thinking about what makes forgiveness possible and how it happened for me and C.P.

Mandela is celebrated beside Gandhi and King as a hero of nonviolence, but the ANC was not always nonviolent. The majority black population of South Africa was oppressed by a white minority there. Their children were dragged out of their houses and killed. Mandela believed in self-defense at one point. Truth is, I did too.

Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis at the “Save Our Schools” (S.O.S) charrette headquarters in 1971.

I almost killed C.P. Ellis a couple of years before we worked together to integrate Durham’s schools. We were at a meeting downtown together, and he kept yelling “nigger” this and “nigger” that. I pulled out the knife that I kept in my hand bag and opened the blade. As soon as he got close to me, I was going to grab his head from behind and cut him from ear to ear. But my pastor was sitting there and saw me holding the knife. He grabbed my hand and said, “Don’t give them the satisfaction.” Nothing but God’s grace and mercy kept me from killing that man and going to jail just like Mandela did.

Still, I often wonder how C.P. and I both changed enough that we were able to work together—to even be friends. In church the preacher says that if you want to be like Jesus you must be “born again.” That really is the only way I can describe it. Something came into our lives those two weeks we spent working together on the “Save Our Schools” meetings. The blinders came off and we both saw that our fighting one another wasn’t doing anything to help the children. We didn’t become friends because we wanted to. What happened, really, was we saw how much we had in common. Then we couldn’t imagine not being friends.

But we couldn’t be friends without forgiving one another. That’s what Mandela knew when he forgave his jailer. There is no future without forgiveness. The future C.P. and I chose, just like the future Mandela chose for his country, meant that our hate had to die. Hate is a terrible thing. But when all you know is hate, you don’t know who you are without it. 

“People must learn to hate,” Mandela said, “and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” C.P. showed me that people can learn to love. We really can be born again, but it means leaving the life we’ve known behind.