Activist Daryl Davis Reveals How He Led Over 200 White Supremacists And KKK Members To Leave Their Neo-Nazi Groups
"Then he says, ‘I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.’ And I burst out laughing."
Daryl Davis has built an unparalleled career as a blues and jazz pianist, backing some of the most iconic American greats in the rock genre like Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. Like any great musician, he also has his own band, The Daryl Davis Band. This resume would be more than enough for most people to be considered having accomplished a full life’s work. But Davis also has an interesting gig between taking the stage.
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For over 30 years he’s acted as a race relations advocate by engaging with members of the Ku Klux Klan and various neo-Nazi groups. His interactions have served as the impetus in over 200 white supremacists renouncing their organization and personally handing in their robes to him.
Davis sat down with Blavity to discuss his journey, motivations and what he has learned in his long road of advocacy.
If you're wondering how Davis first got into his unusual moonlighting gig, apparently, it all started with a show he had at a country-western bar during a conversation on Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Everybody likes music. Music draws in everybody whether its racists or non-racists. The first time I interacted with a white supremacist in a friendly way I was playing in a country-western band. I had just finished the set, and I was the only Black member in this band and only Black person in this bar. The band had been around for a while, and I had recently joined them. Upon coming off stage during break someone put their arm around my shoulder and said how much they enjoyed the music. I turned around and I shook their hand and thanked them."
According to Davis, the white man told him "Man I really like your piano playing, this is the first time I ever heard a Black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis."
Davis explained that he wasn’t offended. Instead, he was surprised that the man, who was much older than him, didn’t know the origin of Lewis’ piano style.
“I said, ‘Well where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play?' I wasn’t being facetious I was just curious. And he said, ‘Well what are you talking about?' I said, ‘Well Jerry Lee learned that style from the same place I did, Black blues and boogie-woogie piano players. That’s where rockabilly and rock and roll came from.’"
Davis went on to explain that the man didn't believe him.
"‘Arhh. No no no. Jerry Lee’s been at that. I ain’t never seen no Black man except for you play like that.’ I said, 'Look man, I know Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s a very good friend of mine and he told me himself that that’s where he learned how to play.’”
Although the man didn't believe Lewis could possibly learn anything from Black people, he still invited Davis to his table all the same. While sitting down, the man admitted that he had never shared a drink with a Black man, and Davis pressed him for the unexpected answer.
"And now I’m furious and I asked him 'why,' and at first he didn’t answer and then I prodded him, 'why?' And then he says, ‘I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan’ and I burst out laughing because now I didn’t believe him. Why would a Klansman come up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, praise my talent and then want to hang out with me? I know a lot about the Klan, and that’s not how it works.”
The fan subsequently laughed at an incredulous Davis then dug inside his wallet and produced a Ku Klux Klan membership card.
That interaction in 1983 compelled the musician to begin writing a book in 1990. Traveling throughout the country, Davis interviewed Klan members, and his collection of accounts was the first of its kind. Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan was published in 1998 and was a unique journey into hate groups written by a Black author from the perspective of intimate discussion. A PBS documentary about his experiences, Accidental Courtesy, was released in 2016.
Davis explained he doesn't do this work to change people's hearts. He initially sought out to answer one question.
For the past 30 years, Daryl Davis, a black man, has spent time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan in the hopes of improving race relations. Read about how he's convinced 200 racists to leave the KKK: https://t.co/wjG7uDNs3e pic.twitter.com/7gs9i5cj2P— AllThatsInteresting (@ATInteresting) January 31, 2020
Davis learned — through the power of understanding mutual humanity in those he interviewed and the Klansman who sat down with him — that a tiger could change his spots and "a klansman could change his robes."
When asked if he was afraid, Davis astutely observed that hate doesn't come in a specific outfit.
"At the end of the day everybody’s a human being. The robe and hood did not give them any more power than they would have had otherwise. There are people that dress in a suit and tie, a police officer’s uniform, Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, a judge's robe that feel the exact same way as the person in the white robe and hood," Davis said. "So we need to stop worrying about what somebody is wearing and be more concerned about what they’re feeling in their heart and what they’re thinking in their mind."
Watch our full video interview with him below!