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Dancing with the Devil

By Bob Massey
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 5, 1998

  Style Showcase

On a scorching summer day in Elkton, Md., in the middle of a half-empty shopping center parking lot, a man sits on the hood of his Lincoln Town Car, mopping his brow and consulting his wristwatch. He's waiting for the Ku Klux Klan to show up. He studies each car that turns into the plaza – not exactly sure what to look for, but certain of one thing: When the Klansmen arrive, they won't be amused.

Two cars pull slowly into the lot after circling the perimeter. Seven unsmiling faces peer at the man on the car. Grand Klaliff Chester Doles of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and his retinue were supposed to be meeting some guy in a Town Car. However, the large dude perched on the hood is clearly non-Anglo-Saxon. In fact he is quite obviously black.

The black man gives them a friendly wave.

The men in the first car confer. The door swings wide and a beefy guy lurches out. He's a Knighthawk – the bodyguard – for the regional KKK leader. He's sporting a T-shirt that says "It's a white thing, you wouldn't understand." He flicks open a large knife and carefully approaches the Lincoln. The black man slides off the hood, meets the Klansman halfway, palms open and visible, eyes locked. Inferring a truce, the Klansman cocks his knife and hangs it at the ready from a belt loop. The black man offers his hand and his name: "I'm Daryl Davis." The Knighthawk's hand is swallowed up in the massive grip.

Soon Chester Doles is storming around, loudly demanding to know just what the hell business a black man has with the Ku Klux Klan. Davis extends a hand. Whether out of courtesy or plain habit, Doles takes it. Tattooed on the pale skin is a swastika. The black man gets a good grip and holds on while he answers, telling Doles about the other Klansmen he's met. He takes his time. He can feel Doles pull back, just a bit. But the pale, tattooed hand is going nowhere, not while entangled in the huge, calm fingers of the darker hand.

In a letter requesting this interview, Davis claimed to have pictures of his meetings with other ranking Klansmen. Doles, breaking free of the handshake, calls for the photos. Davis retrieves them from the car, spreads them out. There's Imperial Wizard Roger Kelly, Grand Giant Tony LaRicci, Grand Giant Bob White. All posed in hoods and robes. Davis also displays a medallion; stamped into it are the words "KKK – Member in good standing."

Doles goes ballistic. He derides the men in the pictures as mere white separatists and worthless Klansmen. They are race traitors. He, Chester Doles, a white supremacist, will never pose with a black man. He demands that Davis give him the medallion.

The black man's hand folds around the half-dollar-size piece of bronze, wedging it deeply behind thick knuckles. It is a prize he will never relinquish. It is, in a strange way, a small piece of himself.

There's no bell on the door of Daryl Davis's modest Silver Spring home; the ring would just get lost too often among the notes from the electric grand piano by the front window. It seems impossible that those huge jackhammer fingers could glide with such precision over the ivories, but they do. Well enough, in fact, to earn Davis slots with two Grammy-winning bands. Well enough to pay for this house. For 18 years, pounding a piano has been Davis's vocation. Music is his primary mission in life.

But for nearly as long, he's pursued a second mission, intertwined with the first. A dangerous fixation, as some see it. Davis has made it his business to meet people who hate him. To shake their hands and ask hard questions. Maybe to change some minds, maybe not.

"My goal was not to convert anybody at all," Davis says, "because if they want to be in the Klan that's their business. I was out to gather information."

Gather he did. In between gigs, he arranged meetings with white separatists and supremacists. "Now I didn't like the Klan. But what I learned was that while you are actively learning about somebody else, you are passively teaching them about yourself."

The notes piled up. So did the photos. Many snapshots of robed figures hang in his living room, next to pictures featuring Davis crushing the hand of some celebrity. Over time, he found himself with enough material for a book. So he wrote one: "Klan-Destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan." It sketches the history of the KKK, the history of Daryl Davis, and the collision of the two.

The publisher, New Horizon Press, favors populist genres like true crime, self-help and first-person success fables. Davis is not a polished writer but his 304-page book succeeds in recounting an unlikely story: How a black man – a diplomat's son, armed only with a handshake – won some unlikely friends.

Davis has helped persuade at least a dozen hard-core racists to quit the Klan. Eleven of them gave Davis their robes and other Klan paraphernalia. These he likes to display as totems of victory. But to win over a racist is one thing, Davis has learned. To win over racism goes well beyond the scope of any book.

Given the history of lynchings and other horrific acts of violence associated with the Klan, there are some common assumptions one could make about Davis: that he's nuts. Or harbors a death wish. Lounging comfortably in his overstuffed easy chair, he chortles. His outreach to racists is motivated by simple curiosity, he says.

Those who know him offer more complex motives. Chester Doles suspects Davis is a spy for the Anti-Defamation League or other Klan-busters. (Davis says he is not affiliated with any group.) Retired KKK leader Bob White thinks of Davis as somehow different from the blacks he typically despises. Adolph Wright, an old friend, college classmate and fellow musician who is also black, suggests drily that Davis is an eccentric: "He's attracted to controversy. When the crowd goes right, he goes left."

Retired senior Foreign Service officer William B. Davis thinks his son simply had to make some sense of the Klan's hatred. The elder Davis's own mission was to seek common ground, and today he declares with some pride, "He has done something that I don't know any other black American, or white American, has done."

When Daryl was young, his father used to admonish him: "You are my personal representative on this Earth. And I will not stand for any bad representation."

He was groomed for a future in diplomacy; his father wanted him to bridge cultural, political and racial fissures in foreign countries. Daryl Davis decided to attend to that task in his own land.

In 1958, while J. Edgar Hoover was investigating Martin Luther King Jr.'s alleged Communist ties, William Davis was in Chicago studying Russian. As a black man, he had hit the glass ceiling as an agent for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Now he had a wife, Iris, and newborn son, Daryl, to think about. His mastery of Russian won him a temporary assignment as a guide and translator in Moscow, where Vice President Nixon was to debate Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. There Davis caught the attention of the deputy director of the U.S. Information Agency – and by 1961, he had his first posting as a diplomat, in Ghana. It was followed by Ethiopia, Guinea and Senegal.

In 1963, William Davis delayed a new posting to join King's March on Washington. But for young Daryl, King's multi-hued dream seemed to already have arrived: The children of diplomats came in many colors. They all played together in embassy schools.

Africa provided an unusual education for Daryl. Everywhere he looked, blacks enjoyed power and respect.

On April 9, 1968, William Davis kept his son home from school to watch King's funeral procession on television. He wanted the 10-year-old to retain the image. Some day, Daryl would understand King's sacrifice. It wouldn't be long.

While William was earning a master's in anthropology from Boston University, the family relocated for a couple of years to Belmont, Mass., where Daryl was the only black Cub Scout in his troop. Marching in a holiday parade, he found himself the target of a hail of rocks and garbage. At first he had no idea the debris was directed toward him; his parents, having grown up in segregated America, had to explain things.

They also found themselves explaining the skittishness of their white landlady, and the reluctance of a certain fellow American diplomat – who was white – to shake hands with black men. There wasn't much to offer by way of logic; just the fact that some people read meanings into different shades of skin.

In his travels, William Davis saw to it that his son made the acquaintance of great men: In Ethiopia, Daryl shook hands with Emperor Haile Selassie, and Langston Hughes was a house guest in Ethiopia. He sat at the elbow of Simon Wiesenthal in Austria. "I wanted him to know these eminent people," William Davis says, "and to never forget what they had done in their own lives." Nor what William Davis had done.

Entering his teens, Daryl discovered another man who challenged American notions of race: Elvis Presley. The singer's popularity had peaked several years before, but radio stations overseas were slow to reflect stateside trends. So while his American peers were following the Beatles into strawberry fields, Daryl was smitten by an earlier wave of rock-and-roll. Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis blurred lines of race. Little Richard blurred lines of sex. Elvis did it all.

At age 15, now relocated to Rockville, Daryl announced to his parents that he intended to become a musician – even though he couldn't play an instrument. After all, look at the happiness Elvis could create, halfway around the world.

"They were adamantly opposed," Davis recalls. "It's like, you know, 'What the hell did I take you all the way around the world for? You've met presidents, you've met kings and emperors. You'd be a great Foreign Service worker.' They just couldn't understand it."

But the correct choice would be obvious to any 15-year-old.

As an American diplomat, his father spoke not just for himself, but for a nation of millions. Including many thousands who hated him, though they had never met him. William Davis – black man, representative of bigots.

If Daryl was going to be his father's personal representative on this Earth, it would require a change in the terms.

When Daryl was in 10th grade in Rockville, two young members of George Lincoln Rockwell's Arlington-based American Nazi Party were invited to speak to his "Problems of the Twentieth Century" class. They endorsed shipping blacks like Daryl back to the motherland, and they didn't mean Chicago.

"I hate to say it," the younger Davis says today, "but it got to a point where I was almost ashamed of my country."

He put his hands to work at the piano keyboard. He taught himself to read music. Once he passed the audition for Howard University's music program, he had to relearn it all the right way.

He graduated in 1980, and within two years landed his first gig backing his idol Chuck Berry. Mission Number 1 was going very well.

Performing with country-western or oldies bands in rural parts of Maryland and Virginia in the mid-'80s, Davis frequently found himself the only black man in the club. From time to time some white stranger, amused by the novelty, bought Davis a drink, told him he played like Jerry Lee Lewis. Never Little Richard; it was always Jerry Lee. Some of the strangers, it turned out, were Klansmen.

After the initial shock, Davis was inoculated. They were friendly enough. And they treated him differently, somehow, since he was a musician. Music served as a license for a black man to enter their sphere. He could ask the Klansmen questions, pry into their heads.

Ever since his classroom encounter with the neo-Nazis, Davis had been reading about the white-power movement. He knew that Maryland was home to various rival Klan factions, all vying for influence. Each state leader, or grand dragon, wanted to steal publicity from his rivals. Though he thought Davis was crazy, one Klansman reluctantly passed him the phone number of Roger Kelly, grand dragon of the Maryland Invisible Knights. Over the phone, Kelly agreed – sight unseen – to meet with Davis to discuss the Klan's agenda.

Though Kelly was surprised to find a black man with his hand stretched out in greeting, that first exchange, in 1990, was cordial. Shortly thereafter came Tony LaRicci, former grand dragon of the Confederation of Independent Orders. Though their rhetoric was fiery, neither said they favored the violence the Klan was historically known for. Both men respectfully gripped Davis's hand.

But Davis had heard of ranking Klansmen with criminal convictions for violence against blacks. Chester Doles was one. Another was Bob White, in prison for an incident involving two black men, a bar fight and an alleged shotgun blast.

Mission Number 2 was taking a risky turn.

His stints in prison were not Bob White's first interactions with the law. From 1965 to 1973 he served as a Baltimore police officer. He walked a city beat until tension over his views necessitated a mutual parting. After that, he worked as a collection agent and kept a store in the city.

White is not shy about his disdain for blacks. Or Jews. Or cops, who he believes railroaded him because of his Klan membership.

In 1978, he was convicted of conspiring to blow up a synagogue; among his fellow conspirators was an undercover cop who had infiltrated the group. Upon reaching the synagogue with the explosives, White became suspicious and called the bombing off. He got a six-year sentence and served four.

By 1989, he was back in prison for a three-year term connected to the bar incident. Using a favorite and effective tactic, Davis sent a letter to White, who had no idea of the writer's race. But before agreeing to an interview, White directed fellow Klansmen to check Davis out. Word came back that he was black – by then, Davis was known in Klan circles. Research for "Klan-Destine Relationships" was underway, and no Klan leader wanted to be out-quoted by a rival. Other Klansmen okayed Davis.

"Plus," White chuckles in a phone interview, "maybe I thought he was crazy at first, but there's not too much I haven't done in my life, and he's got as much guts as I do."

As he came due for parole, the two agreed to meet at the bar in Baltimore where White had been arrested. He reenacted the original incident for Davis, explaining the differences between his version and the police report's.

White and a fellow Klansman got into a scuffle with two black men. They took it outside. But, White says, he retrieved a pellet rifle, not a shotgun, from his truck. Second, he shot into the dirt to scare the black men. Later, the police found a shotgun at his house. Possession of it was a probation violation, he admits, but contends the charges were inflated because of his Klan associations.

Sort of the way police used to railroad blacks because of skin color, Davis asserted.

Exactly, said White.

Davis shared his own experiences with cops: How he and a girlfriend, who was white, were insulted, harassed and finally arrested for disorderly conduct by Baltimore officers. They didn't relish the sight of a racially mixed couple, Davis says in his book. The case was thrown out and the record expunged after the officers' accounts contradicted each other.

Soon, Davis and White were jabbering like two men from the same home town. They swapped tales of media skew and government abuses. They agreed that the arresting officers used excessive force subduing Rodney King. That drugs were destroying the inner cities. That racial hiring quotas only polarize people.

Inside the bar, heads turned at the sight of a black man and a known Klan leader sharing a booth. Ambassadors of two very different, often antagonistic, cultures finding things to talk about. Finding common ground. Sharing a drink. Shaking hands.

"It turns out he was a very decent man," White says of Davis. "He's not a nigger, he's a gentleman. He's a black man, but he's a gentleman."

And the Klan recognizes black gentlemen? "There's nothing in the constitution of the Klan – the Kloran – that says you have to hate blacks, or you have to hate Orientals. You know, it's more or less people's own prej – uh, preferences."

Davis has heard plenty of criticism from both sides of the racial divide. White supremacists freely spew the N-word when he shows up at a rally. Black strangers use the T-word: Tom. As in Uncle.

There have been other costs to his obsessions. Though the book fondly mentions his former girlfriend, in person Davis won't volunteer additional details on their five-year relationship, which crumbled under the constant bombardment of bigotry. Though they remain friends, he remains single.

In his modest home, Davis rises from his easy chair. As he steps into the hallway, toward the closet, he passes various mementos on the walls: photos of celebrities, including what amounts to a veritable shrine to Linda Evans; carved wood totems from Africa and South America; a framed cover of his book, depicting a hooded figure locked in his grip in front of a burning cross.

When Davis returns from the closet he brings more trophies: two pale robes, with hoods and masks, plus seven membership certificates and a pair of medallions, all decorated with the insignia of the Ku Klux Klan: a white cross on a red circle, with a drop of blood at the center. As Davis spreads the robes on the table, one of his cats – whose fur is an even mix of white and black patches – pads among them, sniffing at each.

Here's his evidence of success. Davis thrusts a defense at his detractors: "This is what I've done for racial equality. What have you done?"

None of the former Klan members who gave Davis their robes and other paraphernalia was eager to talk publicly. Tina, a former Klanswoman who asked that her last name be withheld, says she met Davis on a TV talk show where she appeared with her husband, also a KKK follower. She cites her disintegrating family life and her growing commitment to Jesus as important elements in her exodus. But the catalyst, she says, was this burly, smiling black man who offered his hand after the taping.

"I was forced to face him, basically," she recalls. "I shook his hand, and he said, 'You sounded really good out there.' And I thought: 'You know, I've been a real jerk. This guy is so nice.' And I just could not think of one reason to dislike him."

After reading Davis's book, she was pained by the image of Daryl as a Cub Scout being pelted with stones and garbage by hate-filled adults. She has five kids. The image tears her up. She doesn't want her children to grow up harboring such hatred.

The concrete walls glow Pepto-pink and minty green. Chester Doles's prison uniform is blaze orange. The bizarre color scheme makes the explosion of tattoos along Doles's meaty arms seem almost muted and tasteful.

The prisoner is serving a seven-year sentence for assault. He and a fellow Klansman, Raymond Pierson, beat a black man bloody at a stoplight. Doles denies the incident was racially motivated, at least on his part. Claims he didn't even notice the white woman in the black man's truck until afterward. Just a matter of hot tempers, he says – and another clear case of discrimination against the Klan.

In any event, Doles renounces the episode as a youthful error. Says he wants to clean up his image. Literally. He points to the swastika on his right hand, and the slogan WHITE POWER on his left. Those will get lasered off, he says, so he can look more respectable in a suit.

He's got seven kids and was recently remarried. He wants his children to go to college, become lawyers and such. There's no way the wages of a road laborer will stretch to cover all those tuition bills.

So at age 37, Doles is retired from the Klan. No regrets, he wishes them well, fondly remembers the cross-burnings and robed marches, the yearly Klonvocations in Stone Mountain, Ga. Fun times for younger men. But of five generations of Klansmen in his family, Chester Doles is the last.

Indeed, in some ways, Doles seems a different man from the one who was angered to find a black man in that Elkton parking lot seven years ago. He has trimmed his long hair down to a crew cut, tamed his wild mustache, donned a new gold wedding band. He admits to a certain affection for Daryl Davis.

Despite his vow that he would never be photographed with Davis, the former grand klaliff has since posed for a picture. It made Davis's book, of course. "Yeah, Daryl is a friend," he confirms. "He's articulate, intelligent. He relaxed my views – on him, as an individual."

Davis received thank-you notes after making a cash baby gift to one of Doles's former fiancees. Doles's children have met Davis. They like him. But Doles is quick to qualify Davis's generosity: "My children weren't supported by a black man."

Having quit the Klan, Doles plans to enter politics: "I definitely follow the Nazis. National Socialism is my religion. I believe in it and I look for the Fourth Reich."

He says it calmly, matter-of-fact, utterly without irony. Doles's agenda is now set by the National Alliance, founded by William L. Pierce, author of "The Turner Diaries" and inheritor of George Lincoln Rockwell's Nazi following. The alliance's literature embraces "racial cleansing of the land," takes a firm stand against "negroid" jazz and rock music, and, by name, Barry Manilow.

But Doles doesn't mention the implications for his friend, the black musician. Such talk would be impolite and impolitic. "I respect him," the neo-Nazi says. "I'll shake his hand. But I'll take my views to my grave."

Chester Doles vows to take his Klan robes to the grave as well. They are a prize – and a piece of himself – that he will never relinquish to Daryl Davis.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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