Musician Daryl Davis Has Converted Hundreds of KKK Members Over 30 Years — Here's How
PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice
Daryl Davis has spent more than 30 years befriending Ku Klux Klan members in the hopes of bringing about their self-conversion. The 62-year-old jazz musician has written a book about his journey, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan, and was the focus of a documentary, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America. Here, Davis talks about his own experiences with racism, how he became the impetus for some white supremacists to denounce the KKK and his belief that education is key to a more inclusive America.
A few of my friends convinced me to join the Cub Scouts when I was in elementary school. We had a parade to commemorate the ride of Paul Revere shortly after, and I remember everyone being happy and having a good time — until I started getting hit with bottles, rocks and soda cans thrown by a group of adults.
The funny thing? My first thought was, "Those people over there don't like the Scouts."
I was 10 years old and naïve, and I had no idea they were targeting me until a group of fellow scouts and our leaders — all white people — came running to cover me and escort me away from danger. I kept asking them, "Why are they hitting me? I didn't say anything to them. I didn't do anything," and they kept shushing me, urging me to move along quickly. I was the only Scout being targeted this way and I had no clue why. I was also the only Black member of the group.
At the time, most of my childhood had been spent in American embassies all over the world. My parents were in the Foreign Service, and we'd visit a new country for two years, return to the States and be reassigned.
Classrooms overseas were filled with students from many countries — Nigeria, Russia, Japan, you name it. That was the norm for me, but whenever I returned to the States, the schools I joined were either all Black, segregated or black and white integrated. The diversity I experienced overseas was simply nonexistent here.
At home, my parents placed bandages on me as I told them what happened. For the first time in my life, they told me about racism — something I had never heard of before. It had not been a part of my world, I wasn't even aware of it.
My 10-year-old brain could not process what they were telling me — because of the color of my skin, somebody wanted to hurt me? Somebody who had never seen me before, who had never even spoken to me, who knew nothing about me, wanted to hurt me because of my skin color?
I later realized what my parents had told me was real, but I still wondered why people become racist in the first place. I formed a question in my mind: "How can you hate me when you don't know me?"
For the last 52 years, I've been looking for the answer to that question. I've purchased books and documentaries on white supremacy, the Nazis in Germany, Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. I've read all the books but they didn't give me an answer — at least one that was satisfactory to me.
Years later, after earning my degree in Jazz Performance from Howard University, I joined a country band where I was the only Black member. It was 1983 when we visited Frederick, Maryland, and played at an all-white bar (a bar where Blacks were legally allowed to enter but wouldn't be welcomed). After I finished a set, an older white man approached and said, "I sure like your piano playing, this is the first time I've ever heard a Black man play the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis."
The comment didn't offend me, but I took the opportunity to explain how Jerry Lee got his style from Black blues and boogie-woogie piano players. The man invited me back to his table to continue the conversation, and that's when he told me, "You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a Black man." I was mystified. A friend of his then urged him to tell me the reason why.
"I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan," he told me, and I immediately burst out laughing. I thought he was joking until he showed me his membership card. I immediately recognized the Klan's symbol — a red circle and a white cross with a red blood drop at its the center — and I stopped laughing. It was for real.
But our conversation continued, and every time I played at the bar after that, I'd give him a call and he'd come down with some of his Klan friends.
While it took a while for it to dawn on me, I later realized that this was my chance to answer the question of racism I had since I was a Cub Scout. Since then, I have spoken to hundreds of white supremacists — including Grand Dragon Roger Kelly, who later rose to the top level of Imperial Wizard — in the effort to understand them and have them better understand me. Some of those who have left the Klan have given me their robes, their uniform.
You've heard the phrase a tiger does not change his stripes, a leopard does not change his spots? Why would we think a Klansman would change his robe and hood? But it happened, and it's happened time and time again.
Not with everybody — I've helped over 200 KKK members, but I've met with people who will go to their grave being hateful, violent and racist. You don't give up on them, but you know there's no changing those people, they will die that way.
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Ignorance breeds fear. We fear the things we don't understand. If you do not keep that fear in check, fear will escalate and turn into hatred, because we hate the things that frighten us, and because we dislike that feeling, we become angry. If you don't keep that hate in check, the hate will escalate and create destruction. We want to destroy the things that we hate. Why? Because they scare us.
Everybody saw this manifest three years ago in Charlottesville during the white supremacist rally. There was a lot of ignorance, fear and hatred that day, and what did it culminate in? It culminated in destruction when a white supremacist tried to murder counter-protesters by driving full force and full speed into the crowd. He succeeded in injuring many and murdering one young woman named Heather Heyer. Ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds hatred, hatred breeds destruction.
The source is ignorance. If you cure ignorance, then there's nothing to fear because we only fear the things we do not know. So, if we're no longer ignorant, there's nothing to fear. With nothing to fear, there's nothing to hate. With nothing to hate or be angry about, there's nothing to destroy.
Let's cure the ignorance with education and exposure. That's why we need to focus on educating people and exposing them to things they may not otherwise see or know. That is what cures ignorance.
I encourage everyone who is trying to persuade their friends, family and strangers on the important issues of today — don't let your emotions take control. Focus on education and exposure over emotion. That's what we need to do, and that will solve a lot of problems.
We also hear: "Listen, I don't want to talk to those people, I don't have time to talk to those people. It's not my job to educate white people on how to treat Black people." That is nonsense. We all are Americans; we all need to educate one another. I have a lot to learn. If you’ve got something to teach me, then let me learn it, because I have something to teach you, and you’ve also got a lot to learn. Let’s share our experiences, and that will make us more well-rounded people.
It may worsen before it gets better, but remember, there are more good people than bad ones, and you can be the change.
- As told to Jason Duaine Hahn
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.
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