“Who’s this black guy trying to make friends with the Ku Klux Klan? He’s a nut.” 

Considering the KKK’s long history of violent and often murderous racism against black people in the United States, this is potentially a fair assessment, no matter who happens to be saying it.

But on this particular occasion, these were the sentiments of former Klan grand dragon Scott Shepherd upon meeting Daryl Davis for the first time. Davis has managed to collect more than two dozen Klan robes over the decades from men who changed their minds about white supremacy after he befriended them. Pause and let that sink in a second.

Who is Daryl Davis?

Davis is an American R&B pianist, activist, author, actor and bandleader who has played with the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and BB King. He’s been known to play jazz, blues, rock ’n roll, country, boogie-woogie, swing, and big band among other genres. In fact, his willingness to play any style stems from his belief that music is a powerful equalizer. 

The son of a Department of State Foreign Service officer, he lived in many foreign countries as a child, during which time the laid back multiracial integration in schools of foreign diplomats became his normal. It was in 1968, when he returned to the United States at the age of 10 and joined an all-white Cub Scout pack in Massachusetts, that he began to tangibly experience racism. 

“…we were in a parade when people started throwing rocks and things at me. I didn’t understand why people would do that and I formed a question: ‘How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?’ I was curious about racism ever since, but even still, nobody can seem to answer the question,” Davis says.

But even Davis himself was not yet aware that he would someday travel the nation in an effort to cut racism off at its roots.

How did he end up talking to the KKK?

Anyone can follow Davis’ fascinating story in Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (2016), a documentary by Matt Ornstein that follows Davis on his one-of-a-kind quest, as LA Times put it, “to Confederate monuments, Klansmen houses, boogie joints, churches and a hot dog stand where Davis informs Jeff Schoep, the commander of the National Socialist Movement, that Elvis got his inspiration and rhythm from Chuck Berry, and that slaves did not arrive on these shores voluntarily.” 

This is how it started:

It was 1983, and Davis’ band had a country gig at the Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Maryland, where he happened to be the only black man present. After the set, he was approached by a man who said he had never seen a black man who could play like Jerry Lee Lewis.

“I explained to this older white guy that Jerry Lee Lewis was influenced by the same black boogie-woogie and blues piano players as I was,” Davis says. “He didn’t believe me. Then I told him that Jerry Lewis is a good friend of mine and well, he didn’t believe that either, but he was fascinated. So he asks me to join him for a drink…”

Then he said, ‘You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black person.’…So I asked him why. He didn’t answer at first but eventually admitted that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Daryl Davis

Davis shares this story in both national and global speaking engagements, on stages, and in classrooms. It’s key, because it marks the moment that caused his path to divert somewhat from working musician to highly unorthodox campaigner of race relations.

He continued to play music, but Davis also became caught up in what The Guardian has posited as the “world’s strangest side hustle”: meeting with KKK members and even attending their rallies.

Some of these klansmen became close friends of his, and in many cases, the groundbreaking dialogues he managed to instigate led to their quitting the Klan because they no longer believed its foundational principles.

The “conversion” of 200 klansmen

In spite of his active role in reforming the mindsets of Klan members, Davis prefers to say that they converted themselves, and that he simply encouraged them. By the time the 1990s hit, Davis knew enough about the Klan to become the first black man to write a book about them, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan, published in 1998.

In the process of writing the book, he interviewed several Klan members. Perhaps one of Davis’s most legendary encounters of all was his interview with grand dragon Robert Kelly (eventually the imperial wizard of Maryland). Before meeting, Davis intentionally failed to mention he was black—so it came as a shock. Following several hours of intense and at times frightening conversation with Kelly’s armed bodyguard hovering over it all, they parted ways, and Kelly wanted to stay in touch. 

Davis began inviting Kelly to his gigs, his house. “Sometimes I would invite over some of my Jewish friends, some of my black friends, some of my white friends, just to engage Mr. Kelly in conversation…” Davis said.

I didn’t want him to think I was some exception. I wanted him to talk to other people. After awhile he began coming down here by himself, no [bodyguard].

Daryl Davis

With each exchange, one might say the divide between them shrunk. And then, Kelly began inviting Davis to his house and to Klan rallies, complete with the ritualistic chants and burning of giant crosses. He even invited Davis to be his daughter’s godfather.

There was something about Davis that made Kelly open up and share everything, even the ingrained racial stereotypes the Klan’s hatred is founded on. Davis listened, took notes, asked questions, and dispelled each stereotype with outstanding patience. 

Davis has found is that the harmful misconceptions about black people held by extremists is largely rooted in brainwashing. One klansman told him, “All black people have a gene in them that makes them violent,” to which he countered “all white people have within them a gene that makes them serial killers,” thus beginning a dialogue that made the guy consider how ridiculous both these statements are.

Although Davis has persuaded many white supremacists to change their views, he acknowledges that some are beyond reach. Not that this has ever curbed his efforts, nor has the criticism he’s received from some black activists for wasting effort on people who hate him.

Davis broke down his approach to The Atlantic: “…if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be…You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform.”

So he and I [Kelly] would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.

Daryl Davis

And fall apart it did, because Kelly eventually quit the Klan, shut down his chapter and gave his robe to Davis, which, incredibly, was not the last robe he would receive. To date, Davis has befriended over 20 members of the KKK, and is directly responsible for 40-60 of them leaving the Klan, while indirectly responsible for 200+. 

“People must stop focusing on the symptoms of hate, that’s like putting a Band-Aid on cancer,” Davis told The Guardian. “We’ve got to treat it down to the bone, which is ignorance. The cure for ignorance is education. You fix the ignorance, there’s nothing to fear. If there’s nothing to fear, there’s nothing to hate. If there’s nothing to hate, there’s nothing or no one to destroy.” 

Davis recently partnered with minds.com, an open source social networking platform he hopes to use to educate people on how to navigate opposing perspectives–whether at a protest, in a classroom, on social media, or with one’s family.

In our current reality, characterized as it is by racial unease, police brutality, and a global pandemic that’s stripping the veil off everything, I’d say this is highly important work. And you don’t have to agree with his tactics to concede that if this open conversation thing can change minds in the KKK, it could probably do endless good in less extreme scenarios too.

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