When you see something, even something hateful, or hate-filled, say something. You never know what response you’ll get.
Daryl Davis is a musician, a black musician, who has used his music and his travels, to meet members of the Ku Klux Klan so he can talk to them and ask them one simple question:
“How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”
It all started one night when Daryl was the only black man playing in a band. After their set, a man from the audience came up to compliment Daryl on his piano playing, and said he'd never heard a black man play like Jerry Lee Lewis before.
"Who do you think taught Jerry Lee Lewis to play that way?" Davis asked.
And the two men hit it off; the man bought Daryl Davis a drink and as they talked the man confessed that he'd never in his life had a drink with, or spoken with, a black man.
"Why is that?"
"I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan."
Daryl thought it was a joke until the man showed him his Klan card. Daryl didn’t get up and walk away, he continued to talk, and when the man left he gave Daryl Davis his phone number and asked him to call him the next time he played the Silver Dollar Lounge.
That was in 1983, and Daryl Davis has spent the last thirty years talking to Klan members, and watching as many of them have left the KKK after talking to him; in fact, that first man he met all those years ago, continues to come see Daryl Davis when he plays piano at the Silver Dollar Lounge, and sometimes he brings other Klan members with him.
And Daryl’s friends, black and white, think he’s crazy for talking to Klansmen; they think this is a group to be shunned and ignored and despised, but Daryl Davis had a different take on it, and he was just getting started or was he just keeping on with what he’d always done?
Daryl didn’t go to school here in America, he was educated abroad, where the schools he attended were filled with people of all races and ethnicities. At age ten, Daryl’s family moved back to America, to Boston, and he went to a school where there was one other black student other than himself.
Then, in 1968, on a statewide Boy Scout march to commemorate the ride of Paul Revere, Daryl Davis—the only black Boy Scout present—was chosen to carry the American flag. As he and his troop marched in the parade, people along the route began throwing bottles, cans and rocks at him.
Daryl simply thought they were anti-Boy Scout; he had no idea their anger arose because of the color of his skin. It wasn’t until he went home and told his parents what had happened that he learned about racism. And he was shocked; he could not understand how anyone would want to hurt him just because he had a different skin color:
"I literally thought [my parents] were lying to me."
A few years later, one of his teachers brought the head of the American Nazi Party to speak to Daryl’s class, and the man said to this group of tenth-graders:
"We're going to ship you back to Africa. And all you Jews out there are going back to Israel ... If they don't leave voluntarily they will be exterminated in the coming race war."
And that began Daryl’s lifelong fascination with racism, with white supremacy, black supremacy, anti-Semitism.
But let’s move on from there, from Daryl as a child, to Daryl in the 980s, when he played a gig at that same bar where he’d met the Klansmen. One night, after the show, Daryl took out the man’s card, looked up his address, and went unannounced to his house.
"Do you know Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon?" Davis asked. He’d wanted to meet the Klan leader, and the man reluctantly gave him the number, and a warning:
“Do not go to Roger Kelly's house. Roger Kelly will kill you."
But he did go; he met Kelly and the two men spoke. Davis asked that question, about hating someone you don’t know and Kelly talked. Afterward the two men shook hands and Kelly asked Daryl to stay in touch; Daryl Davis was shocked:
"I was thinking, what? I didn't come here to make friends with the Klan! I came here to find out, how can you hate me when you don't know me?"
Nevertheless, he started inviting the Klan leader to gigs and then to his house, where Daryl would introduce Kelly, who always arrived those first few times with a bodyguard, to his black friends, his white friends, his Jewish friends.
"After awhile he began coming down here by himself, no [bodyguard]. He trusted me that much. After a couple years, he became Imperial Wizard. The national leader [and] he began inviting me to his house."
It was in that time that Daryl Davis started attending Klan meetings; and he made it clear that he was utterly opposed to any of the Klan’s ideas, but he stayed and talked and shook hands with members; he even posed for pictures with some of the men. He explains it like this ...
“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.
Give them 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.”
It was while giving Roger Kelly a platform to talk about the Klan that Kelly began to see that he was wrong; his ideas and thoughts about racism began to fall apart and soon Roger Kelly quit the Ku Klux Klan.
"He no longer believes today what he said, and when he quit the Klan he gave me his robe and hood, which is the robe of the Imperial Wizard."
And twelve other Klansmen did the same thing after meeting Daryl Davis and talking to him and with him. In fact, Daryl Davis befriended three Klan leaders in Maryland—Roger Kelly, Robert White, and Chester Doles—and soon enough White and Doles also left the group; these weren’t just men on the periphery of the Klan, these were leaders, lifelong members who’d grown up in hate, but who learned that they were wrong.
And after those three men left the Klan in Maryland there was suddenly no KKK at all in the state; sure, some have tried to get it started again—and in light of the recent elections I sure it might happen again—but, for now, there is no Klan in Maryland.
“Groups from neighboring states might come in and hold a rally ... but it's never taken off."
But Daryl Davis isn’t just working to show the KKK the error of their ways, the price of hatred, he’s faced issues from the black community as well:
"Some black people who have not heard me interviewed or read my book jump to conclusions and prejudge me ... I've been called Uncle Tom. I've been called an Oreo."
But he remains undeterred.
“I had one guy from an NAACP branch chew me up one side and down the other, saying, you know, we've worked hard to get ten steps forward. Here you are sitting down with the enemy having dinner, you're putting us twenty steps back."
And that’s when Daryl opens his closet and brings out the robes and hoods he’s been given over the years from Klansmen who’ve left the group. He uses those as proof that talking to members of the Klan can change the Klan, can, maybe, one day, end the Klan. And he asks the naysayers:
“How many robes and hoods have you collected?"
And they shut up.
Conversation; talking and listening to one another is the spark for change. I mean, think about it, a black man sits down with the Klan and talks to them, and listens to them, and change happens. And he’s doing it on a grand scale, around the country, while the rest of us can do it in our own neighborhoods.
I was thinking about that elderly women in the JC Penney store at a mall, in Kentucky, I think it was; she was annoyed at the Hispanic woman ahead of her in line because that Hispanic woman’s sister added some items to her sister’s cart, thereby not having to wait in line.
The elderly women went on a tear about “you people” and welfare and cutting in lines and “go back where you belong.” And I watched the video—I won’t post it here because I don’t need to see it more than once in my lifetime—and was stunned when she nodded to people in line who agreed with her, and yet I heard no one tell her to stop.
Think of Daryl Davis, and who he speaks to, and who he sits down with, and what he’s done; think of that the next time someone says something racist or misogynistic or hate-filled ... and say something.
I mean, if someone had asked that elderly woman why she hated that Hispanic woman when she didn’t even know her, I wonder what her answer might have been.
It might have been hate-filled, to be sure, I’m no Pollyanna in that regard, but it might have caused her to think ... and to change her behavior, and her hatred.
Say.Something. If Daryl Davis can do it with the Klan think what you could do.