Daryl Davis is no ordinary musician. He’s played with President Clinton and tours the country playing “burnin’ boogie woogie piano” and sharing musical stylings inspired by greats like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s a highly respected and electrifying performer who is currently an integral member of The Legendary Blues Band (formerly known as the Muddy Waters Band,) and he rocks the stage all over the nation.
Davis’ travels, of course, have always afforded him the opportunity to meet a huge range of diverse people, but perhaps nothing could have prepared him for the moment that would change his life.
It was 1983 and Davis was playing country western music in an (informally) all-white lounge. He was the only black musician in the place and when his set was over, a man approached him. “He came up to me and said he liked my piano playing,” says Davis, “then he told me this was the first time he heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.” Davis, somewhat amused, explained to the man: “Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie woogie piano players and he’s a friend of mine. He told me himself where he learned to play.” At first, Davis says, the man was skeptical that Jerry Lee Lewis had been schooled by black musicians, but Davis went on to explain in more detail. “He was fascinated,” says Davis, “but he didn’t believe me. Then, he told me he was a Klansman.”
Most people in this day and age probably would have turned and ran right out of that good ol’ boy’s bar, but not Davis. He stayed and talked with the Klansman for a long time. “At first, I thought ‘why the hell am I sitting with him?’ but we struck up a friendship and it was music that brought us together,” he says.
That friendship would lead Davis on a path almost unimaginable to most folks. Today, Davis is not only a musician, he is a person who befriends KKK members and, as a result, collects the robes and hoods of Klansmen who choose to leave the organization because of their friendship with him.
The road to these close and authentic friendships, Davis says, involved a lot of learning on his part. He’d had racist experiences and had long wanted to write a book about race relations, but hadn’t had the opportunity to sit down and talk to a Klansman. His upbringing was extremely diverse, and his first experience with organized racism was a shock. He explains:
I was raised overseas in integrated schools. I had had a racist experience already but I didn’t know people organized into groups whose premise was to be racist and exclude other people. It seemed unfathomable to me. My parents were in the Foreign Service and I was an American embassy brat, going to international schools overseas. My classes were filled with anyone who had an embassy: Japanese, German, French, Italian. It was multicultural but that term did not exist at that time. For me it was just the norm. Every time I would come back (to the US,) I would see people separated by race. When my father was telling me about (the KKK) at the age of 10 it didn’t make any sense to me. I had always gotten along with everyone.
When Davis decided he needed to write a book about the KKK, he knew he had to find the friend he’d made in the country western bar. Davis tracked him down eight years after they had first met. “I went to his apartment unannounced,” Davis says. “He opens the door and sees me, and he says ‘Daryl! What are you doing here?’ He stepped out of his apartment and I stepped in. He said ‘what’s going on man? Are you still playing?’ I said ‘I need to talk to you about the Klan.'”
At first, his friend resisted, saying he would not give Davis the information he was seeking. “He would not do it because he was fearful,” Davis says. “He thought I would be killed. I said ‘well give me the guy’s number and address.’ He finally gave me Roger Kelly’s number and address but he told me: ‘don’t go to his house; meet him in a public place.'” Davis immediately began making plans to approach Kelly, who at the time was the leader of the KKK in Maryland.
“My secretary called him,” Davis says, “and I told her, ‘do not tell Roger Kelly I’m black. Just tell him I am writing a book on the Klan.’ I wanted her to call because she’s white. I knew enough about the mentality of the Klan that they would never think a white woman would work for a black man. She called him and he didn’t ask what color I was, so we arranged to meet at a motel.”
That meeting, says Davis, was fraught with tension from the start. Kelly arrived at the motel with a nighthawk-a bodyguard dressed in military style fatigues-complete with a firearm.
We met at a motel, and I sent my secretary down the hall to get an ice bucket and sodas so I could offer Mr. Kelly a beverage. The room, by coincidence, was set up so that if the door opened, you could not see who was inside…Right on time there’s a knock on the door. A bodyguard dressed in military gear comes in with a KKK beret and a gun on his hip. Mr. Kelly is directly behind him in a dark blue suit. The bodyguard comes in and sees me and freezes in his tracks. Mr. Kelly trips and slams into him like they were dominoes.
I saw the apprehension so I got up and walked over and said ‘Hi Mr. Kelly, come on in.’ He shook my hand, the bodyguard shook my hand, and they came in. Mr. Kelly sits down and the bodyguard stands at his right. He asked for identification and I handed him my drivers’ license. He says ‘oh you live on Flack Street in Silver Spring.’ Well, I didn’t need him coming to my house and burning a cross or whatever, and here he is calling off my street address. I wanted to let him know not to come to my house so I said ‘yes, and you live at…’ and I said his street address. I made it clear-‘let’s confine our visit to this hotel room.’
But I had no reason to be concerned. One of his Klan members lived right down the street from me. It was coincidence.
The tension, however, continued, Davis says, and eventually reached a fever pitch.
Every time my cassette would run out of tape, I would reach down into my bag and pull out another. Every time I reached down, the bodyguard would reach for his gun. He didn’t know what was in the bag. After a while he relaxed and realized nothing was in the bag but cassettes and the bible. After about an hour, there was a very loud, strange noise which was ominous, and I was apprehensive. In the back of my mind, I heard my friend in my head saying ‘Mr. Kelly will kill you.’ I stood up and slammed my hands on the table, and I felt my life was in danger. When my hands hit the table, my eyes locked with his, and he could read them. We stared into each other’s eyes. The bodyguard was looking back and forth at us, but then my secretary Mary realized what had happened.
The ice bucket had melted and the cans of soda shifted, and that’s what made the noise! We all began laughing at how stupid we all had been. In retrospect, it was a very important lesson that was taught. All because a foreign entity of which we were ignorant, entered into our comfort zone, we became fearful of each other. The lesson learned is: ignorance breeds fear. If you don’t keep that fear in check, that fear will breed hatred. If you don’t keep hatred in check it will breed destruction.
After that defining moment, the meeting was much more relaxed. Davis became friends with Kelly and eventually went on to befriend over 20 members of the KKK. He has collected at least that many robes and hoods, which he has hanging in his closet. He also is viewed as being responsible for dismantling the entire KKK in Maryland because things “fell apart” after he began making inroads with its members there.
He says that KKK members have many misconceptions about black people, which stem mostly from intense brainwashing in the home. When the Klansmen get to know him, he says, it becomes impossible for them to hold on to their prejudices. He explains:
This Klansman and I were riding around in my car and the topic of crime came up. He made the remark that all black people had a gene that makes us violent. I said ‘Gary, what are you talking about?’ He said ‘Who’s doing all the shootings?’ I said ‘let me tell you something, I am as black as anyone you’ve ever seen and I’ve never done a drive by or a shooting.’ After a time I said ‘you know, it’s a fact that all white people have within them a gene that makes them serial killers. Name me three black serial killers.’ He could not do it. I said ‘you have the gene. It’s just latent.’ He said ‘well that’s stupid’ I said ‘it’s just as stupid as what you said to me.’ He was very quiet after that and I know it was sinking in.
Davis also became close with Robert White, a Grand Dragon in the KKK. “I respect someone’s right to air their views whether they are wrong or right,” Davis says. “Robert White was a Grand Dragon who had gone to prison numerous times. I said I wanted to interview him for my book. At first, he was very violent and very hateful but we talked for a long time. Over time, he began thinking about a lot of things he had done and said that were wrong. He quit the Klan. Toward the end he said he would follow me to hell and back. …and he gave me his robe and hood, and his police uniform.”
Davis recounts his experiences with the KKK in his book Klan-Destine Relationships. He says his friendships are real and intimate, and that he does typical things with his friends who are in the Klan. He has even served as a pallbearer at a Klansman’s funeral and attended another’s wedding. When asked about the fear many people feel when confronted with images of KKK members, he says “It’s just material. You have to address what’s in the person head and in their heart.”
Indeed, Davis says that the best way to break down barriers and improve race relations is for two people who disagree with each other to sit down and talk:
A lot of people have anti-racist groups. They get together and meet and have a diverse group and all they do and sit around and talk about how bad discrimination is. Then someone says ‘there’s a Klan group across town. Why don’t we invite them to come and talk to us?’ and the other person says ‘Oh no! We don’t want that guy here!’ Well, you’re doing the exact same thing they are. What’s the purpose of meeting with each other when we already agree? Find someone who disagrees and invite them to your table.
Invite your enemy to talk. Give them a platform to talk because then they will reciprocate. Invite your enemies to sit down and join you. You never know; some small thing you say might give them food for thought, and you will learn from them. Establish dialogue. It’s when the talking stops that the ground becomes fertile for fighting.
Davis currently keeps busy by playing in his band and touring the country giving lectures. He is planning a second follow-up book to Klan-Destine Relationships. He says there’s no need to be afraid of the KKK because at least they make their intentions clear, whereas racism can manifest in anyone, and it is often invisible. He urges those who wish to combat racism to reach out to those who have misconceptions about race.
“When two enemies are talking,” he says, “they’re not fighting.”
By: Rebecca Savastio
Interview with Daryl Davis