The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A black blues musician has a unique hobby: Befriending white supremacists

Daryl Davis stands with the robe of a former KKK member in his home in Silver Spring, Md. (Rachel Chason/The Washington Post)
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Scott Shepherd is a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Daryl Davis is a black blues musician who has been befriending white supremacists for 30 years, trying to convert them.

When Shepherd first heard about Davis five years ago, he was dumbfounded.

“I thought he was nuts,” said Shepherd, 58, of South Haven, Miss. “I told him he was a total crackpot.”

But over the course of dozens of phone calls, several visits and countless conversations about music, the two became friends — so much so that Shepherd now proudly calls himself a “reformed racist” and says Davis is a brother to him.

Davis, 59, has met and befriended many Klan members over the years, connecting over subjects such as family and music. Davis, an R&B musician who played the piano for Chuck Berry, also uses a combination of logic and history to try to persuade them to reconsider their racist beliefs.

Between 40 and 50 Klan members, he claims, have renounced their membership because of his intervention, and many have handed over their robes, which he keeps in his home in Silver Spring, Md.

One day, he said, he hopes to open a museum.

Davis, who was featured in a PBS documentary released in February that screened at South by Southwest last year, has gained a measure of fame over the past 30 years for his seemingly far-fetched mission. Following the violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, The Washington Post asked Davis whether his mission or optimistic outlook had changed.

His resounding answer: No.

“I don’t think my job has gotten any harder. They are human beings,” he said, speaking about the white supremacists he has met over the years. “Many are good, hard-working people with a skewed perception of life and reality.”

Davis said President Trump — who was widely criticized for equivocating before eventually denouncing white supremacists — can’t be blamed for the deadly violence in Virginia.

“He fans a lot of flames the wrong way,” Davis said. “But the racist culture that allowed Charlottesville to happen was in place long before Trump ran for president.”

The silver lining of tragic events like Charlottesville, Davis said, is that they foster conversations about race that he feels are crucial to ending racism.

“Talking about race in this country has been taboo for way too long,” Davis said.

Perspective | It was my dream to meet Chuck Berry. Then I got to perform with him for 30 years.

Davis faces a lot of skepticism.

Mark Potok, an expert on extremism formerly with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in the PBS documentary that Davis’s strategy may or may not end up working in the long run. But he said, “We can’t wait around. … There is a larger poison at work here.”

Davis’s approach, which takes him to Klan rallies and members’ homes across the country, has also made him distinctly unpopular among some black activists, who suggest his time would be better spent engaging in the communities affected by racism as opposed to befriending those who perpetuate it.

Kwame Rose, a prominent activist in Baltimore, told The Washington Post that when Davis makes friends with avowed racists, he validates their racism.

“What happened in Charlottesville is why we don’t need people collecting KKK robes,” Rose said. “We do not need to give anyone ammunition to celebrate their racist past.”

During a heated exchange in the PBS documentary, called “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America,” Rose told Davis, “Stop wasting your time going into people’s houses that don’t love you.”

Davis fired back: “So you believe no one can change?”

“No,” Rose retorted. “I believe you believe the wrong people can change.”

Rose, who led protests following the death of Freddie Gray and is featured in a new HBO documentary, “Baltimore Rising,” said Davis is “uneducated about the reality of most of the people who look like” him.

Davis readily acknowledges that his upbringing — his father was in the Foreign Service so he spent much of his childhood abroad — gives him a perspective that is different from that of many African Americans his age.

When most schools in America were largely black or largely white, Davis was attending international schools that he remembers looking like “a little Model United Nations.”

He said he was a fourth-grader in a Boston suburb when he first encountered racism.

It was 1968, and he was one of two black students in his elementary school in Belmont, Mass. He had joined the Cub Scouts and was marching in a parade from Lexington to Concord when a group that had gathered on the side of the road began pelting rocks and soda cans at him. He remembered he was carrying an American flag.

Davis said he was “so naive” at the time that he didn’t realize he — the only black Cub Scout in the parade — was being targeted until his friends, troop leaders and grandmother formed a protective ring around him.

“The race thing didn’t even occur to me,” Davis said.

As his parents tended to his bruises and scrapes at home, they told Davis what racism meant. At first, he didn’t accept the notion that such hatred could be generated by “something as stupid as the color of skin.”

But when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that spring, he came around to his parents’ point of view.

With that realization, he formed a question: “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?”

It’s that question that drove Davis to begin researching the Klan and other hate groups when he was in high school. And it’s that question that led him to become friends with his first Klan member in a bar when he was 25.

It was 1983, and Davis was playing the piano with a country band at the Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Md. He was the only black musician in the band and the only black person in the bar.

After the band finished its set, a white man approached Davis. He told him it was the first time he had heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.

Amused, Davis told the man that he knew Lewis and that Lewis was influenced by black blues musicians.

The man didn’t believe Davis on either count at first, but he did buy him a cranberry juice — Davis doesn’t drink alcohol. He then confessed that Davis was the first black man with whom he had shared a drink.

“I asked him why,” remembered Davis. “I wasn’t trying to be facetious or anything — I just didn’t understand.”

That’s when the man, with prompting from his friend, told Davis he was in the KKK.

“I was still naive, so I just laughed at first,” Davis said. “I didn’t believe him until he showed me his Klan card.” 

But, after bonding over their shared taste in music, the man asked Davis to let him know the next time he played at the bar. And so he did, and Davis’s first unlikely friendship was formed.

The man, as Davis tells it, eventually left the Klan because of the friendship he’d formed with Davis.

“Klansmen and Klanswomen aren’t cut from the same cloth,” he said. “They have different stories, though they have the same underlying theme where they feel like they’ve been marginalized by people who are inferior to them.”

Davis, who wrote a book in 1998 called “Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan,” was featured in stories on CNN and in the The Washington Post in the 1990s.

In 1996, KKK Imperial Wizard Roger Kelly expressed his respect for Davis even while speaking at a Klan rally in Clairmont, Md., according to CNN.

“I would follow that man to hell and back because I believe in what he stands for,” Kelly said at the time about Davis. “We don’t agree on everything, but at least he respects me to sit down and listen and I respect him.”

Three years later, Kelly quit the Klan and gave Davis his robe.

Shepherd, the former Klansman from Mississippi, said he joined the Klan when he was 17 to find a community after a difficult childhood with his abusive father.

For years, he said, he secluded himself, ashamed of his past. Then he saw Davis in a segment on Discovery Channel and reached out.

“He offered his hand and opened it,” he said. “He was willing to be there for me, and so I started to see that the problem wasn’t color. The problem I had was myself.”

Now, Shepherd, too, is on a mission to educate Klan members, especially young people, and persuade them to renounce their membership.

“I think I’m getting close with two,” he said.

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