Atwater has been a longtime African American activist in Durham. She was born on July 1, 1935 and came to Durham in the 1950s. Her husband had lied to her about a home and opportunities for their family in Durham, and she soon found herself as a single mother struggling in one of the poorest areas of the city. Before long, she became involved with voter registration drives and educating Durham citizens about their civic duty. Always standing up for her rights, she knew to demand repairs from her landlord before paying back her rent. Atwater was later recruited by Operation Breakthrough as a community organizer, and quickly became a leader for the Housing Committee for United Operations. She quit her job as a household domestic and joined the civil rights fight, where she was an important advocate for lower income families in Durham.
In the early 1970s, Atwater became friends with KKK leader C.P. Ellis when they co-chaired the Save Our Schools Committee together in Durham. Writer Osha Gray Davidson chronicles this transformative relationship in his book, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. Atwater’s friendship with Ellis is also the subject of filmmaker Diane Bloom’s documentary, “An Unlikely Friendship.” Atwater has been very sick for the past several years, and is currently on dialysis for a kidney transplant. She currently resides at the Pettigrew Rehabilitation Center in Durham, North Carolina.
She was a woman most famously known as the “godmother” of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) where she spread civil activism to an entire generation in Durham. Her progressive practices and bold leadership led Durham into a new era. Recently there is a NC State Highway historic marker dedicated to her involvement.
In 1943, at only 16, she refused to offer her bus seat to a white passenger. Then she was physically assaulted by a police officer while he attempted to remove her from the bus for disregarding segregation laws, but she was the one convicted and fined for assault and battery. Her bravery outstands time and remains inspiring for all who hear her story.
Morgan refused to give up her seat on an interstate bus in 1944 long before Rosa Parks. In response to her brave opposition to the Jim Crow laws, the NAACP took her case to the Supreme Court. The Morgan case declared that any forced segregation of interstate buses was illegal. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal.
She was a woman of many talents working as a writer, attorney, feminist, educator, poet, and priest. However, Pauli Murray was and continues to be a symbol of activism and hope in Durham as her visions for the future against racism, feminism, and homophobia were far beyond her time.
Recently she has been named a saint by the Episcopal Church making her the first woman African American to do so.
In 1943, Juanita Nelson sat in a cafeteria in Washington D.C. with Pauli Murray and other Howard University students to protest segregation. She spent her life trying to promote peace and non-violent practices, and in 1988 she published her book A Matter of Freedom and Other Writings.
She was a tireless activist for migrant farm workers, founding various organizations and mentoring young activists. During the boycott of Mt. Olive pickles, she was known for her legendary hand crafted “pickle tiara.” In later years, she became secretary of the NC Pesticide Board and served on the Executive Committee of the National Farm Worker Ministry.
Joyce Ware played a huge role in mass protests as part of the desegregation campaign. She was the student leader of North Carolina College (NCC). In August 1963 she was a co-coordinator of the march on Washington where hundreds and thousands of people gathered to advocate human rights.
After attending a town meeting, she planned and took part in a civil rights action. She also led some of her friends to part take in a sit-in at the whites only dining room at the Royal Ice Cream Co. parlor where she was arrested. She was never ashamed in standing up for what she believed in.