Changing Robes: A black man found an inspiring way to befriend the KKK

Chicago native Daryl Davis, a black man, has been sitting down face-to-face with leaders and members of the Ku Klux Klan for more than 30 years. Even decades after the group’s third resurgence, he believes the organization is still relevant today.

“We’ve seen a lot of that relevance firsthand post-election here in 2017,” Davis, 58, said, speaking of the state of the country during and after the latest presidential election.

While he does not agree with the Klan’s stated mission of white supremacy, Davis says the key to building relationships with people of different backgrounds is finding the commonalities. For Davis, it’s through his music, the catalyst that brought him to meet his first Klansman 34 years ago.

It was a hope of his for quite some time. Early in his childhood, Davis experienced racism. At age 10, Davis was the only black Boy Scout at a statewide Boy Scout march in Massachusetts to honor Paul Revere’s historic ride. The troop chose Davis to carry the American flag — a high honor from Davis’ perspective. Davis’ patriotic mood quickly changed into one of pain as the onlookers began throwing cans and rocks at him. Davis said he thought perhaps the crowd didn’t like Boy Scouts. Soon he noticed he was the only one the crowd targeted. Davis didn’t understand. Later that night, his parents explained to him the concept of racism.

Davis then posed a poignant question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” he asked.

When Davis was in the 10th grade, the head of the American Nazi Party visited his class. Davis recalls the man preaching to his class that there would be a race war if blacks and Jews were not shipped back to Africa and Israel.

It made no sense to Davis. How could people judge him without knowing anything about him except the color of his skin? In a search for answers on racists’ motivations, he began reading books on different forms of racism, such as black supremacy, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Still, he came up short. No answers satisfied his curiosity.

Then, one night in 1983, Davis got the opportunity he needed to begin finding answers.

How can you hate me when you don't even know me?

A country band performed at the Silver Dollar Lounge, a predominantly white venue in Frederick, Md.

While this band had performed there many times before, this was then-25-year-old Davis’ first time playing with them. Those who frequented the venue noticed Davis playing the piano on stage. He was not only new to the band, but he was the only black person in the lineup. This wasn’t Davis first time in this position, so he was used to being the focus of people’s attention.

After the band’s set, Davis walked off the stage and crossed the dance floor. He was startled when a white man who appeared to be in his 40s came from behind and put his arm around Davis’ shoulder. The man began complimenting Davis’ skills, saying he never had heard of a black pianist who could play like Jerry Lee Lewis.

After befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan for more than 30 years, Daryl Davis says building relationships start with finding commonalities.

"I was not offended, but I was kind of surprised," Davis told Rare in the living room of his Silver Spring home. Davis has played alongside famous musicians, such as Chuck Berry, Bruce Hornsby and even Lewis himself. "Has he never seen Little Richard or Fast Domino? I mean that fast style that Jerry Lee Lewis had evolved from black blues and boogie-woogie piano players."

Davis hits the black and white keys on the piano on the piano in his Maryland home as if his musical tunes are produced effortlessly. When you hear him play, you can’t help but appreciate the rhythmic beat just as that man did more than three decades ago.

After he invited Davis to his table with his friend, the man shared with Davis that this was his first time sitting down with a black man. Soon after, Davis learned he was sitting across from a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I busted out laughing,” Davis said. “Nowhere in the books that I had read said anything about a Klansman coming up and embracing a black man. It wasn’t until he pulled out his Klan card that I believed him.”

They exchange numbers that night, Davis recalls. His new KKK friend wanted to continue watching Davis play at the Silver Dollar Lounge. The next time, he would bring some of his friends from the Klan.

“Some would want to meet me,” he said. “Others when they saw me coming to their table, they’d get up and go somewhere else. They wanted nothing else to do with me other than watch me.”

The Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of violence, is the most infamous — and oldest — of American hate groups. Although black Americans have typically been the Klan's primary target, it also has attacked Jews, immigrants, gays and lesbians and, until recently, Catholics. — The Southern Policy Law Center

Davis’ first friendship with a KKK member continued through the remainder of 1983, when he left the country music band to return to his blues and rock n’ roll roots.

The whole time, Davis had the opportunity to ask a Klansman questions he’s had since he was 10 years old, though he never did.

“A few years later, I thought to myself, ‘That was the perfect opportunity,'” he said. “It just fell into my lap. I didn’t even think about it.”

That's when Davis decided he wanted to write a book which became "Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan." He reached out to his long-distant friend and asked him to help arrange a meeting with the state leader of the KKK. Eventually, he met with the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Maryland, Roger Kelly. Kelly later became Imperial Wizard, the national leader of the KKK.

Despite some people’s skepticism to his friendships with Klan members, Davis said he can’t help but try to make “harmonies,” bringing differences together to create something beautiful, even when he is off stage.

Davis' story caught the attention of film director Matt Ornstein. He follows Davis as he makes friends with members of the KKK and other white supremacy groups in a documentary titled "Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America."

Davis hopes the documentary, which aired on PBS Feb. 13 and is available on iTunes, will show people that anyone can make friends with differing views, as long as they're will to try.

This is part one of Rare’s series Changing Robes, a conversation with Daryl Davis and his life’s mission to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan and understand the origins of racism. Read more: