The Audacity of Talking About Race With the Ku Klux Klan

Can conversation help end bigotry? An improbable example suggests that it would be unwise to discount the possibility.

When musician Daryl Davis first met a member of the Ku Klux Klan he was the only black man in a country band. They were playing a gig at an all-white venue in Frederick, Maryland. After their set, a member of the audience approached Davis to compliment his piano skills, saying he’d never heard a black pianist play like Jerry Lee Lewis. “Who do you think taught Jerry Lee Lewis to play that way?” Davis replied. They hit it off. The patron wanted to buy Davis a drink, and soon after he observed that he’d never in his life had a drink or conversed with a black man.

“Why is that?”

“I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

At first Davis thought he was joking. But the man pulled out his wallet and produced his Klan card. Later he wrote down his phone number. He asked Davis to call him the next time he played the Silver Dollar Lounge. He’d come out to watch.

* * *

That meeting happened in 1983. It has been recounted in several interviews and a book, but I first heard about it this year while listening to the interview podcast Love+Radio. There is no substitute for hearing Davis tell the story in a his own words.

Those words came back to me this week as I reflected on an ongoing controversy: what to make of the notion that we need to have “a conversation about race.” Lately, that debate has focused on a flawed plan by the CEO of Starbucks to host in-store conversations. But disagreements on the subject are much older. I believe that remedying discrete injustices ought to be the first priority of the anti-racism movement and that conversations about race can offer some salutary benefits. Others disagree. Here I want to present Davis’s views, which are worth grappling with as judgment calls are made in less extreme circumstances.

As he sees it, conversations of a particular sort can be hugely useful in the fight against racism. Indeed, he has defended conversations that many people would condemn, starting with the time that he called up that member of the Ku Klux Klan, informed him of an upcoming gig at the Silver Dollar Lounge, and befriended him as he attended subsequent gigs, sometimes with other Klan members. His friends, black and white alike, thought that he was crazy. These people belonged to a despicable, stomach-churning, evil organization. They deserved contempt.

But Davis was just getting started.

To understand everything that he did next it’s necessary to go back to his childhood. That’s where he began to develop his ideas about racism and public discourse, leading to uncomfortable actions and results that can’t be easily dismissed.

* * *

After a childhood spent abroad, where he was educated at international schools attended by people of many races and ethnicities, Davis moved at age 10 to a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, where he was one of two black kids in his school.

In 1968, on a statewide Boy Scout march to commemorate the ride of Paul Revere, he was chosen by his troop to carry the American flag. He was also the only black Boy Scout present. 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.”

Some years later, a teacher brought the head of the American Nazi Party as a speaker to his 10th-grade class. As he remembers it, the man declared, “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.”

So began a lifelong fascination.

Davis undertook a study of racism in all its forms: white supremacy, black supremacy, anti-Semitism. Learning what motivated racists became his obsession.

The most consequential part of his investigation began when he took out the card of that Klansman who came to his gigs, looked up his address, and went unannounced to his house. The man had, in the interim, been kicked out of the group (he’d taken Ku Klux Klan money to attend a rally but spent it on Hulk Hogan tickets). “Do you know Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon?” Davis asked. He wanted to set up an interview with the Klan leader. Finally he got a phone number from his ex-Klan friend, who said, “Do not go to Roger Kelly’s house. Roger Kelly will kill you.”

His first meeting with Roger Kelly is retold dramatically in the podcast.

For our purposes, it is enough to know that at the end of the interview, the two men shook hands and the Klan leader said, “Stay in touch,” extending his 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, he started inviting the Klan leader to gigs and then to his house.

“He’d sit right over there on the couch,” Davis said. “Sometimes I would invite over some of my Jewish friends, some of my black friends, some of my white friends, just to engage Mr. Kelly in conversation … I didn’t want him to think I was some exception. I wanted him to talk to other people. 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. He began inviting me to his house.”

In time, Davis attended Klan rallies. He was clear that he vehemently disagreed with the group and its ideology. But he would also shake their hands and pose for photographs.

He explained his logic:

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. 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.

Eventually Roger Kelly quit the Ku Klux Klan. “He no longer believes today what he said,” Davis explains. “And when he quit the Klan he gave me his robe and hood, which is the robe of the Imperial Wizard.” Twelve other Klansmen did the same.

He credits his approach for helping to dismantle the local Klan. “The three Klan leaders here in Maryland, Roger Kelly, Robert White, and Chester Doles—I became friends with each one of them—when the three Klan leaders left the Klan and became friends of mine, that ended the Ku Klux Klan in the state of Maryland,” he asserted. “Today there is no more Ku Klux Klan in the state. They’ve tried to revive it every now and then but it immediately falls apart. Groups from neighboring states might come in and hold a rally … but it’s never taken off.”

The visionary behind Love+Radio, Nick van der Kolk, interjected at this point in the story. “Do you think there’s a danger that when you’re up on stage with a Klan member there’s some sort of tacit approval happening? That he can point to you and say, ‘This black guy, we’re cool, so therefore my separatist beliefs are right’?”

He also asked, “Have you ever gotten criticism from black folks?”

“Of course,” Davis replied. “Absolutely. Not black people who are friends of mine, who know me and understand where I’m coming from. 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.” It doesn’t sway him:

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 10 steps forward. Here you are sitting down with the enemy having dinner, you’re putting us 20 steps back.”

I pull out my robes and hoods and say, “Look, this is what I’ve done to put a dent in racism. I’ve got robes and hoods hanging in my closet by people who’ve given up that belief because of my conversations sitting down to dinner. They gave it up. How many robes and hoods have you collected?” And then they shut up.

What Davis did makes a lot of people uneasy even when they fully grasp his intentions. I’m a relatively radical proponent of public discourse who respects his motives, his ingenuity, and his results … and it still makes me uneasy. But one needn’t agree with the decision to engage literal Klansmen (or minimize the good work done by the NAACP) to conclude that if conversation has changed the minds of multiple leaders of what is arguably the most hateful group in American history, it could probably do a lot of good in various less-extreme cases.

Interestingly, Davis argues that conversing about race is most useful in extreme cases. “There are a lot of well meaning white liberals. And a lot of well meaning black liberals,” he said. “But you know what? When all they do is sit around and preach to the choir it does absolutely no good. If you’re not a racist it doesn’t do any good for me to meet with you and sit around and talk about how bad racism is.” I have some disagreements with Davis. This isn’t the place for them. He should have us convinced, beyond any doubt, that conversation has a place in the anti-racism tool kit. And as he’d note, he’s struck more blows against racism than I ever have.