As race proves to be an ongoing, paramount issue in American society, one black man is building bridges with the Ku Klux Klan.
Daryl Davis is a veteran musician who has played with legends like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But over the last several decades, he has made a name for himself for his willingness to initiate dialogue with some of the most characteristically racist people in U.S. history.
He recounts a show he played in 1983, after which a KKK member approached him to compliment his skills, adding that he had “never heard a black pianist play like Jerry Lee Lewis.” To his disbelief, Davis informed him he was a friend of Lewis’.
“Who do you think taught Jerry Lee Lewis to play that way?” Davis remembers telling him. Davis soon learned the klansman had never actually interacted with a black man before. But the man wanted to buy him a drink, and Davis obliged. The klansman told him he wanted to come see him play again.
Davis went on to interview Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon of the same KKK division as his new friend. After going to his home to interview the KKK leader and ask him why he hated him, the leader surprised him by offering him a business card. “I was thinking, what? I didn’t come here to make friends with the Klan!” Davis said. “I came here to find out, how can you hate me when you don’t know me?”
Nevertheless, Kelly ended up participating in meetings at Davis’ house between white people, black people, and Jews, fostering discussions to engage the klansman in conversation. Kelly even named Davis godfather to his child And ultimately quit the Klan.
Davis is now the subject of a recent documentary that explores his mission to befriend racists while challenging their ideology. Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, & Americawas featured earlier this year at South by Southwest Film Festival, among others, and has been shown at small theaters. It will air on PBS on February 13.
Davis’ approach is markedly different from the reaction of the American left to racism in the United States. This faction has largely advocated a zero tolerance policy when it comes to racial prejudice, an understandable perspective that unfortunately does little to bridge the divide.
In contrast, Davis, who has attended various KKK rallies over the years, has said:
“The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So 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. And believe me, I’ve heard things so extreme at these rallies they’ll cut you to the bone.”
In spite of the hate he has witnessed, he argues it is a better strategy to give racists a platform:
“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 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.”
Indeed, Davis has befriended countless members of the Klan who ultimately resigned, and many of them — including Kelly — have given their regalia to Davis. He says some people question why he keeps these items. As he explains in the trailer for the documentary:
“‘Daryl, why do you have this stuff? Why don’t you burn it?’ As shameful as it is, we don’t burn our history, regardless of the good, the bad, the ugly. And the Ku Klux Klan is as American as apple pie, baseball, and Chevrolet.”
Some outlets have reported that Davis claims he has inspired some 200 klan members to leave the organization, however, Anti-Media reached out to the documentary makers’ public relations agency and was informed the number is unconfirmable and ‘probably more of an estimation.” Nevertheless, it’s evident Davis has made a lasting impact on the lives of countless former klansmen.
He remembers being selected to carry the American flag in a statewide Boy Scout tribute to Paul Revere in 1968. He was the only black scout present. The Atlantic noted:
“When people in the crowd started to hurl bottles, cans, and rocks, he thought to himself, these people must not like the Boy Scouts. In time, he realized that he was the only kid being targeted but he didn’t know why. Upon returning home, his parents explained racism to him for the first time. He couldn’t comprehend that people who knew nothing about him would inflict pain based only on the color of his skin: ‘I literally thought they were lying to me.’“
This early exposure to the senselessness of racism has stayed with Davis throughout his life. He has studied the KKK extensively and says “the best way to put somebody at ease or bring them to a level of trust is to know as much if not more about them than they know about themselves or the organization to which they belong. “
Armed with this knowledge, he presents a fundamental conundrum in the documentary. “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? Look at me and tell me to my face why you would lynch me,” he says.
His approach is evidently working. As he observes:
“I never set out to convert anybody. In my quest, some of them ended up converting themselves.”