One night in 1983, I found myself playing in a country band at a truck stop lounge. I was the only black person in the joint. Taking a break after the first set of music, I was headed to sit at a table with my bandmates when a white gentleman approached from behind and put his arm around my shoulders. “I really enjoy y’all’s music,” he said. I shook his hand and thanked him. “This is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis,” he continued.
I told him that Lewis was a friend of mine and that he had learned his style from watching and listening to black blues and boogie-woogie pianists. My new fan didn’t buy it, but he did want to buy me a drink. While we sipped, he clinked my glass and said, “This is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man.”
Why? “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. I burst out laughing. Then he handed me his KKK membership card, and I recognized the Klan’s symbols. In that moment, I was overcome by a question: How could anybody hate me when they didn’t even know me?
I was no stranger to racism. Having grown up a black person in the ’60s and ’70s, I knew that prejudice was common. But I had never understood why. Sitting in that lounge with my new friend, I decided to figure it out in the only way that made sense: By getting to know those who felt hostility toward black people without ever having known any.
Several years later, I recruited that man, whose name was Frank James, to put me in contact with the grand dragon of the Maryland Klan. He tried to deter me, warning that the leader would kill me. But eventually, after I promised not to reveal how I’d gotten the grand dragon’s contact information, James gave it to me. (I reveal it now, because James has since died.)
By then, I had decided to travel around the country and interview KKK leaders and members from various chapters and factions to get the answer to my question: How can you hate someone you've never met? I was planning to write a book detailing my interviews, experiences and encounters with these Ku Klux Klan members. (The book, "Klan-Destine Relationships," was published in 1998.)
I had my white secretary, who typically booked my band and assisted me with my music business, set up a meeting with the Maryland grand dragon, Roger Kelly, explaining that her boss was writing a book on the Klan and would like his input. Per my instructions, she did not reveal the color of my skin.
Kelly agreed to participate, and we secured a room at a Frederick, Md., motel, where my secretary filled an ice bucket with cans of soda so I could offer my guest a drink. Regardless of how and what he felt about me, if he entered my room after seeing the color of my skin, I was going to treat him with hospitality.
Punctual to the minute, there was a knock on the door. The grand nighthawk (the grand dragon’s bodyguard) entered first, and then the dragon himself. “Hello,” I began, “I’m Daryl Davis.” I offered my palm, and Kelly shook my hand as he and the nighthawk introduced themselves. He sat in the chair I had set out, and the nighthawk stood at attention beside him.
We were both apprehensive of the other, and the interview started haltingly. We discussed what he had hoped to achieve by joining the Klan; what his thoughts were on blacks, Asians, Jews and Hispanics; and whether he thought it would ever be possible for different races to get along. A little while later, we heard an inexplicable crackling noise and we both tensed. The dragon and I stared each other in the eye, silently asking, “What did you just do?” The nighthawk reached for his gun. Nobody spoke. I barely breathed.
Seated atop the dresser, my secretary realized what had happened: The ice in the bucket had started to melt, causing the soda cans to shift. It happened again, and we all began laughing. From there, the interview went on without a hitch.
It was a perfect illustration that ignorance breeds fear and possibly violence. An unknown noise in an ice bucket could’ve led to gunfire, had we not taken a moment to understand what we were encountering.
Even though Kelly had told me he knew that white people were superior to blacks, our dialogue continued over the years. He would visit me in my home, and I would eventually be a guest in his. We would share many meals together, even though he thought I was inferior. Within a couple of years, he rose to the rank of imperial wizard, the top national leadership position in the Klan.
Over the past 30 years, I have come to know hundreds of white supremacists, from KKK members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists to those who call themselves alt-right. Some were good people with wrong beliefs, and others were bad people hellbent on violence and the destruction of those who were non-Aryan.
There was Bob White, a grand dragon for Maryland who served four years in prison for conspiring to bomb a synagogue in Baltimore, where he had been a police officer. When he got out, he returned to the Klan and later went back to prison for three more years for assaulting two black men with a shotgun, evidently intent on murder. But after I reached out to him with a letter while he was in prison for the second time, Bob became a very good friend, renounced the Klan and attended my wedding.
Frank Ancona, who headed a Missouri Klan chapter, would also become a very close friend. When Ancona was killed this year (his wife and stepson have been charged with his murder), one of his Klan members, knowing how close we had been, called me and told me before notifying the police. I accepted the Klan’s invitation to participate in his funeral service.
Three weeks after this summer’s violent clash in Charlottesville, I was invited by the leaders of the Tennessee and Kentucky chapters of Ancona’s branch of the Klan to speak at their national Konvocation. I accepted, spoke and took audience questions after the lecture. Whether or not anyone there immediately changed their minds, we talked as people — and we all benefitted from that.
I am not so naive as to think everyone will change. There are certainly those who will go to their graves as hateful, violent racists. I never set out certain that I would convert anyone. I just wanted to have a conversation and ask, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” What I’ve learned is that whether or not I’ve changed minds, talking can still relieve tensions. I’ve seen firsthand that when two enemies are talking, they are not fighting. They may be yelling and beating their fists on the table, but at least they are talking. Violence happens only when talking has stopped.
And sometimes, people do change. One day in 1999, after having been in the Ku Klux Klan for about 20 years, Kelly, who had risen from grand dragon to imperial wizard, called me, said he was leaving the Klan and apologized for having been a member. He told me he could no longer hate people. I had not turned out to be what he had always thought of black people. He went on to become one of my best friends, and today I own his robe and hood — one set of many in my collection of garments donated to me by apostate Klansmen and Klanswomen, which is always growing.