Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Daryl Davis had a question: How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?
The question took Davis on a journey across time and race to a place where a black man broke bread with wizards, took their hoods and robes and hung them in his home. To a place where a black man embraced Klansmen who wanted to kill him, became a godfather to their children, and spoke at their funerals.
At the age of 10, Davis was assaulted with bottles and rocks because of the color of his skin. At the age of 59, Davis is esteemed by more than 200 men who left the Ku Klux Klan because of his influence.
“I have never set out to convert anybody,” said Davis, the keynote speaker at Friday morning’s DreamWeek breakfast that kicked off the annual citywide summit celebrating King’s legacy with cultural events, panel discussions, and other civic gatherings. “I set out to find out how people can hate me when they don’t know me. As a result, I started sitting down and talking with people, and some began to change their minds over time. I thought, ‘Wow, I stumbled into something. Maybe I should keep doing this.’”
Davis turned his mission into a book – Klan-Destine Relationships – and became the subject of a documentary, Accidental Courtesy. He has shared his story on CNN, NBC, NPR, and ABC’s Good Morning America and found himself in sharp conflict, at times, with those in the Black Lives Matter movement who disapprove of his methods.
“Infiltrating the Klan ain’t freeing your people,” BLM activist Kwame Rose said in the documentary. “Stop wasting your time going to people’s houses who don’t love you, a house where they want to throw you under the basement. White Supremacists can’t change.”
What did Dr. King dream? That one day, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
What did Davis do? Beginning in 1983, he reached out to Klansmen, shared meals with white supremacists and turned enemies into friends.
“Daryl is my best friend,” said Scott Shepherd, a former Grand Dragon in the Tennessee KKK. “But Daryl isn’t just a friend. He’s my brother.”
The son of a U.S. foreign service diplomat, Davis grew up in multicultural environments. He attended racially and ethnically diverse schools in Europe and Africa. His first encounter with bigotry occurred after his family moved to the U.S. In 1968, Davis marched in a parade in a suburb of Boston, the only black in a troop of white Cub Scouts.
At first, he thought the rocks and bottles were hurled by those who hated scouts. After learning he was targeted because of his race, Davis was incredulous. Six weeks later, King was assassinated and Daryl recognized the evil behind the rocks and bottles. How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?
The 10-year-old boy carried that question through adolescence and into college. He took it into adulthood, into his career as a jazz and blues pianist. Davis played for Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, for Fats Domino and Muddy Waters. He once played for a country band and caught the eye of a patron at the Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Maryland.
Impressed with the dazzling pianist, the patron, Frank James, bought Davis a drink (“cranberry juice,” Davis explained, because he doesn’t drink alcohol). He clinked Davis’ glass and told him it was the first time he’d ever had a drink with a black man. Davis asked why. James showed him his KKK card.
The encounter inspired Davis to travel the country, attend KKK rallies and interview Klansmen. He would gather answers to his question and put them in a book. As the tour began, Davis called James and asked to be connected with the Grand Dragon of the Maryland KKK. Davis and Roger Kelly, the KKK leader, met in a hotel room in Frederick.
An unlikely friendship formed. They visited each other’s homes, shared meals, engaged in long, thoughtful conversations. As the years passed, Kelly rose to Imperial Wizard, the top leadership position in the Klan.
In 1999, Davis took an unexpected call. Kelly phoned to apologize, to say he was leaving the Klan. Remorseful for his hate, Kelly later gave his hood and robe to Davis.
“I probably have between 43 and 45 hoods and robes,” Davis said. “The number of Klansmen who have left because of me is around 200, 200 plus.”
What began as research project turned into a mission. Davis used music to build a bridge with white supremacists, natural charisma and disarming kindness to engage their hearts. He used history and logic to expose the lies of racism, truth and love to demolish walls of hate.
A large man with a deep voice and persuasive tongue, Davis can render a Klansman silent. It happened once on a drive through a high-crime neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The Klansman remarked that all black men possessed a violent gene. As evidence, he pointed to the assaults committed by African Americans in the area. Davis countered that he had never committed a violent act. The Klansman said, “That’s because your gene is latent.”
Davis asked the Klansman to name three black serial killers. When he couldn’t, Davis rattled off the names of white serial killers: Bundy, Berkowitz, Manson, Dahmer, Gacy. The Klansman said he hadn’t killed anyone. “That’s because your gene is latent,” Davis said. “That’s stupid,” replied the Klansman. “No more stupid,” Davis shot back, “than what you said to me.”
“He got very very, quiet,” Davis recalled. “His wheels were spinning. Five months later, he left the Klan based on that conversation.”
From that man, Davis received his first hood and robe. The collection grows. Fascination with Davis’ mission grows, too. Shokare Nakpodia, founder of DreamWeek San Antonio, wanted to hear Davis’ story in person and invited him to speak.
“If we could clone 10 to 20 of you,” Nakpodia told Davis at the DreamWeek breakfast, “the world would be different.”
Mike Lowe, a Black Lives Matters activist, offers a less enthusiastic view. He says he and Davis address racism differently.
“I would not personally discredit his work,” said Lowe, a member of SATX4 in San Antonio before he relocated to Fort Worth last July. “However, the work he is doing is on an individual level. We are doing it at the macro level. We want to dismantle the system that continues to oppress black people and people of color in this country.”
Scott Shepherd used to hate black people. He used to denigrate King and his family. Raised in a violent home with an alcoholic father, Shepherd joined the KKK in his youth and became a Grand Dragon. He came to despise the hatred and left the KKK only to find himself alone and friendless. Klansmen shunned him along with those who loathed the KKK.
Shepherd saw Davis on television and reached out. Davis became Shepherd’s only friend. Shepherd handed Davis his hood and robe and emerged as an anti-racism activist. At the King Center last year, with Davis seated beside him, Shepherd apologized to King’s daughter Bernice and the entire King family for the hate he once espoused.
“She accepted my apology,” Shepherd said. “She said it was the struggle that her dad went through that made it possible for her and for me to sit on the same stage.”
As Davis concluded his keynote speech Friday, he recalled MLK’s dream, that one day the sons of slaves would sit at the table of brotherhood with the sons of slaveholders. In Davis’ time, that particular part has been fulfilled. As evidence, he pulled two items from a bag that left his audience in awe: the hood and robe of Roger Kelly, the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK.