Daryl Davis is a blues and R&B musician who has played with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Hornsby, and Bill Clinton. He’s also a black man who regularly talks to members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Why? Because since he first experienced racism at the age of 10, he’s had the same question for anyone who hates him because of his color: how can you hate me if you don’t even know me?
That question has opened up some interesting dialogue. Sometimes KKK members tell him they’re just superior, and say the Bible confirms it. Others realize they just don’t have a good answer. And some do the extraordinary: they tell him they’re going to leave the KKK. Often they’ll give Daryl their robes and hoods as a memento. He’s got about 25 of them hanging in storage bags in a secure location.
We met Daryl at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year where a feature documentary about him called Accidental Courtesy premiered. It was clear he was a pioneer in reaching out to the other side. We couldn’t wait to sit down and find out more about how he starts such challenging conversations, and what he’s discovered in the process.
What was your experience with racism growing up?
My parents were in the U.S. Foreign Service, so we moved every two years and lived in a lot of different places. My classes at school were like a little United Nations, filled with people from all over the world. I learned a lot about how to get along with others.
When we moved back to the U.S. in 1968, I was one of only two black kids in my school in Belmont, Massachusetts. I joined the Cub Scouts and became one of the only black scouts in the area. We were marching in a parade one day when some of the white spectators started to throw soda cans and rocks at us. I thought everyone was getting hit until my den mother and troop leaders gathered around me and hurried me along, protecting me with their bodies. When I got home my parents saw the scrapes and bruises and asked what happened. They bandaged me up and sat me down and told me what racism was. I had never heard the word before. My parents always told me the truth, but on that day, when they explained why I was the only one targeted, I thought they were lying. It made no sense to me whatsoever that someone who had never seen me or spoken to me and knew nothing about me would want to attack me because of the color of my skin. About a month later, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and riots broke out. That’s when I realized my parents were telling the truth.
Is that when your question first surfaced?
Yes. From that incident on, I read every book I could about the Nazis and the KKK. I couldn’t find the answer to my question there. Then, years later, I thought who better to ask than someone who would join an organization for people who hate? That’s when I sought out members of the KKK.
Weren’t you afraid?
No. And let me tell you why. I grew up around so many different kinds of cultures. In reality the KKK is just another kind of culture.
How does a black man reach out to members of the KKK?
It was purely by chance. I was playing with a country music band at a lounge one night, the only black guy in the place. At the end of the set, I went over to sit at the band table and a white guy came up to me and said he really enjoyed the music. He said it was the first time he’d seen a black man play the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. I asked him if he knew that Jerry Lee Lewis got his style from blacks, playing black music. He didn’t believe me. Turns out he was a Klansman, and he started to come in regularly with other Klan members just to hear me play.
Some years later, I contacted that Klansman and asked him if he could put me in touch with the state Klan leader, called a Grand Dragon, to interview him for a book I wanted to write. He reluctantly gave me the Grand Dragon’s phone number on the condition that I not tell the him how I came to get it. He warned me not to go to the Grand Dragon’s house because he would kill me. The Grand Dragon’s name was Roger. I had my secretary call him and ask if I could interview him for a book, telling her not to reveal I am black. Roger agreed and came to see us with an armed bodyguard. They did a double take when they realized the interview was with a black man, but they sat down, and we ended up talking for a couple of hours.
What happened when you asked him your question?
Roger said I was simply inferior to him. He said black people have smaller brains, they’re less accomplished than whites. He said now that slavery was over, all black people should go back to Africa. I spoke freely, and I let him speak freely. Because when you’ve established dialogue, when two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. If you spend just five minutes talking to someone, even your worst enemy, you’ll find you have something in common. If you spend ten minutes, you’ll find more. Over time you’ll find a lot in common and the things you had in contrast, like skin color, begin to matter less.
I started to get together with Roger after that. He never invited me to his house, but I’d call him and invite him to come on an errand with me, and Roger and his bodyguard would drive around with me. Later, Roger came alone to my house. When he was promoted to Imperial Wizard, which is a national leader, he started to invite me to his home and Klan rallies.
Why on earth was he doing all this?
At that point he had developed a respect for me. He believed he wanted to treat me fairly. And he was giving me the information he wanted to give me for my book.
Is he one of the ones who eventually left the KKK?
Yes. And he spoke out about his leaving publicly. But in the end he became reclusive. Whenever his employer saw in the media that he’d been a member of the KKK, he’d always lose his job.
What has been your most difficult encounter?
Some people just won’t change. That’s hard. But I think it’s hardest when I meet their children. It’s sad to see what their kids are living with. I give about 60 lectures a year all over the country. Sometimes, when I’m packing up and answering final questions, I’ll see a student standing off to the side. I always know what’s up. He’s waiting for the crowd to go away and then he’ll approach. I play dumb, waiting for the moment when he tells me one of his parents is in the KKK, that he’s met more people at university and is dating a black or Jewish girl, or he’s friends with people from Pakistan. These students will tell me they can’t bring their friends home because their parents will disown them, and they can’t tell their friends about their background because they will lose them. So they’re harboring this secret and can’t let it out. They have to tell someone, and they tell me.
What have you learned from these encounters?
Kids are resilient. They’re raised a certain way and then they come to college with people from all over the world and realize these people are human beings and they have a lot in common. The same is true with the 2 Sides Project. You put these kids together and they think all they have in common is they lost a parent in war. But you have to get kids together earlier, kids who have lost parents senselessly due to recent wars. They have a lot of years ahead of them to change things, and they will.
We have that goal, to help any child from any war connect with the other side. But we wonder if it’s too early to do so.
Time heals wounds, but right now, while all the feelings are still present, it’s a good time to bring people together. The children of those who have been killed didn’t have any choice. They were thrown into it. They don’t have the animosity toward the other side as much as adults do. Kids get along better and they have better ideas about how to get along. They accept each other more readily than adults do. Bring these kids together and I guarantee you that as they grow older, they’ll make better decisions, and we’ll have less war. We may not live to see it, but you will have had an effect on them because they will have come to their senses earlier.
What I’ve learned is that ignorance breeds fear. If we don’t keep that fear in check, it will breed hatred. If we don’t keep the hatred in check, it will breed destruction. So we have to talk. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. They may be yelling and screaming and beating their fists on the table, but at least they are talking. It’s when the talking ceases, that the ground becomes fertile for violence. So let’s keep the conversation going.