If not for the movie The Best of Enemies, W.L. “Bill” Riddick would be relatively unknown. I attended a screening for The Best of Enemies, starring Taraji P. Hensen and Sam Rockwell, and was enchanted by Bill’s character commandingly portrayed by British actor Babou Ceesay. I jumped at the chance to speak with Bill—to hear his story, how his Christian faith informs his work, and if his use of a collaborative process known as charrette (to unite opposing sides) could be used to solve conflict in these times of racial, gender, economic, and educational injustice.
A humble man, Riddick is an unsung hero who leads a charrette co-chaired by an unlikely pair — civil rights activist Ann Atwater and KKK leader C.P. Ellis — in the desegregation of the Durham Public Schools in 1971. With a career in human services that spans over fifty years, Bill’s story did not start or end with the charrette in Durham in 1971.
For those of our readers who may be unfamiliar with you, tell us, who is Bill Riddick?
Bill Riddick is a man born in the ’30s. My parents were tenant farmers. I got the opportunity to go to A&T State University, worked for a couple of years, and then went back to NC State University for a Masters Degree and then started a career. I spent my last eighteen years at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill working in student health. So, he’s a good guy. A Christian man who has a lovely family and all is well right now.
I was going to ask this later, but I’ll ask now. Can you share how your faith has informed your work throughout the years?
Like most Southerners, I grew up in the church because it’s the only social institution in the community. I kind of lost my way for a few years and when the charette started, my faith was there, but my behavior wasn’t there. So when I look back on it, I realize that the Lord gave me every word, led me every step, gave me every idea, and He chose me as a vessel for these two people. But I didn’t ask Him at that point. But I understand it now.
You understand it now. Yes! There’s something about looking and tracing not only the trajectory of your life but also the hand of God in your life. You can see how God was moving even when you didn’t realize it. So, tell us how you became acquainted with the charette process?
I was working at Shaw University and we did a charette and it fell apart. About halfway through it the person who was leading the charette told me that I was the reason that it was falling apart. I finished it. It turned out to be good. I got invited to Indianapolis and then to York, Pennsylvania, and then, of course, to Durham.
How did you get to Durham? Who invited you? What were your expectations walking in?
I got there through a friend of mine. His name was Wilbur Hobby from the North Carolina AFL-CIO. We had made a good friendship in some other work we had done together. When he called me, I knew it was serious. I knew that he was asking me to do something that was impossible because he was just that kind of guy. (chuckles) I had some reservations about it, but I knew that he was a good person and he wouldn’t put me in anything he thought I could not do. So that gave me the energy to sort this thing out.
So did you think it would work?
Well, in doing a charette, the first thing you do is put together a steering committee. And once you get the steering committee, you then look at the opposite of the issue. And that’s how I got to Ann and that’s how I got to C.P. I got to CP because he knew Wilbur. And when I called Wilbur’s name, he gained enough respect to call me other than what he did. (chuckles) But at least he knew that I had somebody in my history, or in my present life, that was a friend to both of us.
What would you say the film got right and what didn’t we see in the film that you think was important to the process?
I think the film got the major points right. This whole movie is real. Robin Bissell did a great job of picking the parts that were big parts and had to be shown to the public. But to have gotten one day of the back and forth, and how we had to argue about stuff, especially those first four or five days, would have been something the audience would enjoy. But that would have been a three-hour movie by itself.
As I watched the film, I kept thinking, “So I know the ending, but this is incredulous!” That had to be some experience for you, but I’m sure there had to be others. So outside of Durham in 1971 what would you say the most memorable charrette was and what made it memorable?
Well, if I take Durham out of it, I really enjoyed the one in Indianapolis. We got the community together to offer what it would look like in a low-wealth community. And that school, the way we designed it started at 6 o’clock in the morning and ended at 11:00 with women bringing “well” babies to the clinic and all that stuff. I have no idea whether all that was accomplished, but the city was very pleased with what we had done to put together a high school that served the community—where people didn’t have to go downtown for services.
I read your bio and I know a little bit about your background and it sounds like you’ve done amazing work, hands-on Justice work, which is still much needed. We’re still living in very tense times, and there are disparities across race, gender, socioeconomic status, healthcare, education and more. Do you think that a charrette is a tool that can still be used today, and if so, in what ways?
Well, the charrette was set up to be a 10-day process. Nobody in America today would have time to do anything for 10 straight days. That’s not going to happen. I do think, though, that the issue of bringing people together to look at the same problem but who see it very differently is something that we are going to have to start doing in our country. We bark at each other, but we don’t sit down and truly listen to what the other person is saying. That was the intent of the charrette; That we will listen and respond and listen and respond until we come up with a solution. We just don’t have the attitude, nor the time, to do that kind of thing today.
As you were saying that, I was thinking of the Disciples in the Upper Room. There’s waiting and patience and willingness to bear your thoughts and feelings and deeply listen and work through the conflict that is necessary.
That is true. We’re going to have to start looking at issues that affect a lot of people and do something about it really, other than giving it lip service. And I also think the key might be the religious community. Because I honestly believe, first of all, that God is not happy with us—with the divisiveness and putting each other down. I think He is very much unhappy with that. I believe that this is a time for faith-based institutions to come together, to say, “Look, you know we can do this! We can. Not only do we have the power of God on our side, but we can do things much like the Civil Rights movement. I think if Martin King wasn’t a God-fearing man that he would not have been as successful as he was.
Yes. Absolutely. Do you have any parting words of wisdom or advice you would share with our readers who are mostly millennials—the younger generation, though I believe the oldest millennials are about thirty-nine now, so not so young. What would you share with our readers in terms of using their faith in the work of justice?
I believe that if you go to the movie and see it, you take the time the next day or two just to look at yourself in the mirror and decide what your biases are that might harm other people. Make a pledge to yourself to become a better person, to say, “I’m going to treat people the way I want to be treated—no matter what their color, age, ethnicity, and all that stuff —I am going to give everybody the right to stand on the surface that they stand on.” I think if we do that, millennials particularly won’t get caught up in these lines of disliking this person and liking this person.
To learn more about Bill and his work, check out the film The Best of Enemies in theaters in April 2019 and pick up his book The Charrette Process: A Tool in Urban Planning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rev. Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah is a preacher, chaplain, teacher, artist, writer, thinker, and dreamer who loves to study the Word of God, encourage others, and worship God. Rev. Owusu-Ansah holds a BS in Studio Art from New York University, an MFA in Photography from Howard University, and a Master of Divinity, Pastoral Theology, from Drew University. You can check out her website at https://www.reverendmotherrunner.com.