In 2002, the U.N. declared May 21 the World Day fo Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. This not only celebrates the richness of world's cultures, but also the critical role of intercultural dialogue for achieving peace, prosperity, and sustainable development.
The Ku Klux Klan has a long history of violent - and often homicidal - racism against black people in the United States. It is the oldest and most infamous hate group in America, whose primary targets are African Americans, as well as Jews, immigrants, leftists, and homosexuals. Members of the group made their own costumes: robes, masks and conical hats, designed to be terrifying and to hide their identities, so that they could continue their reign of intimidation and hate in anonymity and impunity.
Meet Daryl Davis
“Who’s this black guy trying to make friends with the Ku Klux Klan? He’s a nut.” At least that's what former Klan grand dragon Scott Shepherd said, after meeting Daryl for the first time.
Daryl Davis is an American R&B pianist, activist, author, actor and bandleader who also managed to collect more than two dozen Klan robes over the past four decades from men who changed their minds about white supremacy after he befriended them.
Daryl has played alongside musical legends like 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. And he used that as a vehicle to build bridges with men who didn't always see equality in quite the same way.
The Son of a Diplomat
Daryl Davis was the son of a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer, and 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 experience a bizarre phenomenon.
The Cub Scouts had a march, from Lexington to Concord, to commemorate the ride of Paul Revere. Daryl's den mother let him carry the American Flag. And as he was marching as the only black scout in this parade - which included Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies, 4H Club, and other large organizations - somewhere along the parade route, he began getting hit... with bottles, soda pop cans, rocks, and debris from the street, by a small group of white spectators mixed in with the all-white crowd. This was the first time Daryl had ever experienced anything like this, and he didn't understand. He thought, maybe, these people did not like Cub Scouts.
Daryl didn't realize he was the only Scout getting hit, until his Den mother and the other Scout leaders came rushing over and huddled over him with their bodies, and escorted him out of danger. They never explained why, despite his persistent question, 'Why are they hitting me? Why are they hitting me? What had I done wrong?'
The Ridiculous Notion of Racism
For the first time in his life, at the age of ten, his parents sat him down, and explained racism to Daryl. He had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. It was inconceivable to him that someone who had never laid eyes on him, never spoken to him, knew absolutely nothing about him, would want to inflict pain upon him for no other reason than this: the color of his skin. So naturally, he didn't believe his parents.
But as he encountered more experiences like this, he began to think his parents might be telling the truth. So at the age of ten, he formed a question in his mind that would shape his work for the rest of his life: "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,” Daryl says. But even Daryl himself wasn't yet aware that he would someday travel the nation in an effort to upend racism at its roots.
A Chance Encounter
In 1983, Daryl’s 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,” Daryl 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."
A chance encounter with this member of the Ku Klux Klan led black musician Daryl Davis on a quest to determine the source of the hate. His unorthodox, yet simple approach, has wielded surprising results and just might be the solution for all racial discourse.
The World's Strangest Side Hustle
Daryl continued to play music, but he 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. 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 Daryl's most legendary encounters of all was his interview with grand dragon Robert Kelly (eventually the imperial wizard of Maryland). Before meeting, Daryl intentionally failed to mention he was black—so it came as a shock to Robert. Following several hours of intense (and at times frightening) conversation, with Robert's armed bodyguard hovering over them, Daryl and Robert parted ways. But Robert wanted to stay in touch.
Daryl began inviting Robert to his gigs and 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…” Daryl 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]."
Chipping At Cement
With each exchange, the divide between them shrunk. And then, Robert began inviting Daryl to his house and to Klan rallies, complete with the ritualistic chants and burning of giant crosses. He even invited Daryl to be his daughter’s godfather.
There was something about Daryl that made Robert Kelly open up and share everything, even the ingrained racial stereotypes the Klan’s hatred is founded on. Daryl listened, took notes, asked questions, and dispelled each stereotype with outstanding grace and patience.
"So [Robert Kelly] and I 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." And fall apart it did, because Robert eventually quit the Klan, shut down his chapter and gave his robe to Daryl.
The Real Root of the Problem
“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." And ignorance, as Daryl notes, breeds fear. "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.”
Daryl found 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 Daryl 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.
Daryl unpacked 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.”
Daryl shares his story, and the unlikely friendship with Robert Kelly, 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.
The Conversion of Klansmen
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. To date, Daryl 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+.
In spite of his active role in reforming the mindsets of Klan members, Daryl prefers to say that they changed their own minds; he simply gave them an opportunity to do so.
Although Daryl has witnessed 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.
Building Bridges in Perilous Times
Anyone can follow Daryls’ fascinating story, as LA Times put it, from “Confederate monuments, Klansmen houses, boogie joints, churches and a hot dog stand," where Daryl 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.
Daryl 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, political tension, and a global pandemic that’s stripping the veil off everything, Daryl's work is as relevant today as it was in 1968. You don’t have to agree with his views to concede that if this 'open conversation' thing can change minds in the KKK, it could probably do some good in our divided climate today.
You Can Learn More About Daryl Davis...
Watch TED Talk: Why I, As a Black Man, Attend KKK Rallies (2017)
Read the Book: Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan, by Daryl Davis, published in (1998)
Read The Guardian: "Daryl Davis: The Black Musician Who Converts Ku Klux Klan Members" (2020)
Read Baltimore Fishbowl: Here’s the Black Blues Musician Who “Dismantled the Entire KKK in Md.”, November 25, 2013
Watch the Documentary: Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America , a documentary by Matt Ornstein that follows Davis on his one-of-a-kind quest. (2016)
Read Goalcast: Daryl Davis, the Black Man Who Befriended the KKK, by Maya Khamala (2020)