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How One Black Blues Musician Changed 25 Members of the KKK

08-16-2017
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BALTIMORE -- Playing music comes as naturally as breathing for 58-year-old blues musician Daryl Davis.

"I've been playing music professionally, full time since 1980 when I graduated college at the age of 22," Davis said

Unique Relationships Formed

Through music he's formed some unique friendships, with people like Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry. It has also led to unlikely friendships, like Roger Kelly, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I just happened to be, in 1983, the only black guy in this country band and consequently the only black guy in many of the places where we played," Davis said.

One place was the Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Maryland. After a performance there a white man stopped Davis as he walked off the stage.

"And he says, 'You know I really like your all's music.' I said, 'Thank you,' I shook his hand...I don't drink but I went back to his table and I had a cranberry juice with him," he recalled.

"Then he makes the remark when the waitress brings my cranberry juice, he clinks the glass and cheers me and says, 'You know this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man,'" he continued. "Now I'm thinking, 'Wow what's going on here? This guys really having a night of firsts.' And I said, 'Why?' Again I was naïve and I wasn't trying to be facetious."

"He stared down at the table top and didn't answer me and he had a friend with him and he goes, 'Tell him, tell him, tell him,'" he continued. "I said, 'Tell me,' and finally he says, 'I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan.'"

Unexpected Change

Since age 10, when first confronted with the realities of racism, Davis pondered one question: How can you hate me when you don't know me?

His unlikely KKK connection inspired him to start getting answers.

"Some years later I decided I was going to write a book on the Klan. I'm going to go around, cause I'm thinking now, I'm going to start with that guy and get him to hook me up with different Klan people around the country so I can ask my question," Davis said.

His research often put him in some dangerous situations, but it also led to an unexpected change in the relationship he shared with certain Klan members.

"I would ask them questions and they would answer the questions but they wouldn't ask for my opinion, they wouldn't ask me what I thought about it because they had no reason to, I'm inferior," he said.

"And then over time I would say, 'So what do you think about 'blah, blah, blah?' And they would say, 'Well I think du, da, du, da, da.' And then they would say, 'Well what do you think Daryl?'" he continued.

"And I was like wait a minute, all the sudden I have value, you really want my opinion? I didn't say that but I was thinking that so that let me know the ice was broken," Davis said.

The musician says he's convinced 25 members of the KKK to leave the organization, simply through friendly conversation.

"And when they did so, many of them gave me their robes and hoods," Davis said. "That is just not done. This uniform represents white supremacy, and you're taking it off and giving it to a black man?"

'Changing The System'

As a new generation of African Americans enter adulthood, they're fighting racism their own way. Rather than trying to change one mind at a time as Davis has done, this activist generation uses social media to reach the masses.

Some in the Black Lives Matter movement have been critical of Davis, saying he's defeating their purpose with his relational approach.

"The fact that I would sit down and spend so much time with the 'enemy' when I should be devoting my time to defeating the system of white supremacy," Davis explained.

He believes this younger generation has the right intent, although their methods can taint the mission.

"You need a multi-pronged attack; from the front, from the side, from the back, through the rear door, whatever," Davis said. "You don't change the system without changing the people behind the system. That's why I'm sitting down with them and I've had success."

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