This is a story about how music and human connection has countered racism, based on the life and experiences of Daryl Davis, a R&B and blues pianist and vocalist.
Daryl Davis used music to convert 200 members of the KKK to denounce their beliefs.
“If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy, you can find something in common. Nurture that, and you’re closing that gap. You find more commonalities and form a friendship, and the things that are different like the colour of your skin matters less.” – Daryl Davis
How did he do it?
This is what he has to say, taken from Daryl Davis’ interview on Joe Rogan.
“Everybody loves music. Even the KKK. Now I play anything, rock and roll, swing, jazz, I play whatever people want to play. One night I was playing at the bar one night in Frederick, Maryland. It was an all white bar. Blacks chose not to go in because they weren’t welcome.
I was the only black guy in the band and the only black guy in the bar.
When I finished my first set, someone came over to put their arm around my shoulder. He said he enjoyed my music and told me this was the first time he heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.”
I was surprised. I explained to him I got my style from the same place Jerry Lee Lewis did, black blues and boogie woogie players. He didn’t believe me, and said Jerry Lee Lewis invented it. I told him, “Look man, I know Jerry Lee Lewis, and he told me himself where he got it from.” He still didn’t believe me, but he was so fascinated he wanted to buy me a drink.
We started talking and eventually he told me he was a part of the KKK.
I burst out laughing. This was obviously a joke. But then he showed me his klan membership card, and I was not laughing anymore. We continued talking about the klan and different things, but by the end of the night he gave me his phone number and wanted me to call him whenever I was back in the bar. I said I’d call him, and I did every six weeks. He’d come out most nights and bring klansmen.
The klansmen would come out and dance to my music. On my break I would go and say hello. Some of them were curious and wanted to talk. Others would see me coming and go to the back of the room. At that time I decided to write a book to answer a question:
How can you hate me if you don’t know me?
That was a question I was trying to answer for 51 years. Four months after I met the Klansmen, I realized they were who I should be asking this question to. So I went to his house and I asked if I could talk to the leader of his organization. He said he didn’t want to get in trouble. He was concerned for my safety and his own and I had to convince him for 20 minutes before he finally gave in.
Finally he gave me the number and address of the leader of Maryland’s KKK, Roger Kelly.
A Hotel Room with a Leader of KKK
I asked my secretary, Mary to give Roger Kelly a call and ask for an interview.
I told him not to tell him that I was a black man, so he wouldn’t have different answers prepared.
At 5:15 on a Sunday afternoon, I had an interview with Roger Kelly in a hotel.
I didn’t know what he would do. Would he walk away? Would he attack me? I still wanted to be hospitable so I prepared soda for him, and an ice bucket to keep it cold. I prepared chairs for both of us across the table. The room was laid out so you would not know who was in the room from the hallway.
In my duffel bag, I kept my cassette tapes to record the interview and a Bible. The Ku Klux Klan claims the Bible preaches racial separation. I’ve read through the Bible and never saw that, so I wanted him to tell me where he sees that.
Mary, my secretary is white, so she welcomes him to the room.
His bodyguard comes in first with military gear on. On his hip, he has a semi-automatic handgun.
Roger Kelly walks right behind. When his bodyguard sees me, he’s so surprised he stops.
Roger Kelly bumps into him and they’re stumbling.
He looked like he was wondering if he got into the wrong room.
I showed them my open palms, I’m unarmed. Then I put my right hand out and shook hands with the leader of Maryland’s KKK.
He asked me if I had any form of identification. I showed him and he says, oh you live on such and such street in Silver Spring. This had me concerned. I wondered if he would burn the cross in my home.
I said to him that is where I live, and I named his house number and his street. I told him if he came to visit me, I would go and visit him, so we can confine all this visiting to this hotel room.
I learned later that one of his klan members lived in my neighbourhood. So Roger Kelly had visited before. I later learned that klan member had committed a hate crime and is in a federal prison.
Roger Kelly told me black people were inferior. We commit more crime and that’s why there’s more blacks in prison.
That’s a half-truth. It’s an inequity in our judicial system. Anyway, to him I’m a criminal.
He says black people are lazy. They don’t want to work. We’re looking for handouts and freebies. He even said black people had a lower IQ.
So I’m sitting there listening to this guy telling me I’m a criminal and my brain is small.
What he was saying was offensive, but this is the difference between me and other people. I did not take offense to it.
Why should I be offended by someone who knows nothing about me?
This is usually what stops a conversation, people get into combat and go nowhere.
He finished, he was proud of what he said. I said, so Mr. Kelly, I don’t have a criminal record. I have never been on welfare. I’ve never measured my brain, but I said I’m sure it’s the same size as everyone else’s. He grumbles a bit, and we would continue the conversation.
A Sudden Noise and Fear from Both Sides
Now during this interview, the cassettes were running out. Every time I reached down in my bag to get another cassette, his bodyguard would reach up on his handgun. I got that it’s his job.
I realized these people were afraid of me. I was familiar with this. When you get pulled over by a cop, you tell them your credentials are in the glove pocket and when you reach in they put a hand on their gun.
But after a while, they relax. I grab my cassettes and he doesn’t reach for his handgun anymore. Then over an hour into the interview, I heard a sound.
It sounded like the click of a gun. It didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from the bodyguard, it could only come from Roger Kelly. I wonder what I had done, but I didn’t want to die.
In that split second, I went into survival mode. In survival mode you can only do one of four things. Some people pass out, other people their muscles contract and they can’t move. The third thing is to run away. That is your best option.
I was not armed. My secretary was not armed. I couldn’t run from a bullet in a motel room, so I chose the fourth option, a pre-emptive strike. I flew out of my chair, I wanted to get the gun away from him.
But I hit the table and my eyes locked with Roger Kelly’s eyes.
My eyes were saying what did you do? His eyes were saying what did you just do?
His bodyguard had his hand on his gun, wondering what either of us were doing.
Mary was sitting on the dresser and explained what had happened.
The ice in the ice bucket had melted and it sounded like a click.
We began laughing, all of us at how ignorant we’ve been. All because some foreign entity, the bucket of ice, entered into our comfort zone, we became fearful and accusatory of each other.
The lesson taught is ignorance breeds fear. If we don’t keep that fear in check, that fear will escalate into hatred. We hate what frightens us. We want to destroy what we hate. But guess what? That might have been harmless. We saw that chain unravel, and it almost became destruction. Had I jumped across the table and hurt one of them, had the bodyguard drawn his gun and shot one of us, that would have been the last part.
We could both see that now.
That chain has unravelled into completion before.
If you want to stop the problem of racism, we need to stop focusing on the symptoms.
Don’t worry about fear, don’t worry about hatred.
The source of all this ignorance.
The cure for ignorance is called education.
We fear what we don’t know. If there’s nothing to fear, there’s nothing to hate.
If there’s nothing to hate, there’s nothing to destroy.
We spend too much time talking at the other person or about the other person.
What about talking WITH the other person?
Growing a Friendship with the KKK
We finished the rest of the conversation in the hotel room, had some laughs, and at the end they told me to keep in touch.
It’s not that we agreed during the conversation. He’d say the Bible says “The lamb should not lay with the wolf.” I’d say blacks and whites are not different species, we’re different colours. So he takes what he wants to fit the narrative and I’d counter what he says.
But I did call Roger Kelly, and he’d come to my gigs with his bodyguard.
I’d invite him to my house, and he’d come with his bodyguard. He’d sit on my couch. Sometimes his bodyguard would get bored and twirl his gun.
But I started feeling more comfortable. I began inviting my other friends over too, my black friends, my jewish friends, my white friends, and the leader of the KKK.
Sometimes I told them, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes they’d freak out.
Sometimes I’d stop at a Klan rally on my way to a gig with my band. My bandmates would say they’d rather just meet me at the gig.
My relationship with Roger Kelly grew. I actually liked the guy even though I didn’t like his ideology. I saw the humanity in him. He saw the humanity in me. I began interviewing more Klan members. Some wanted to talk to me, some didn’t want to talk to me. Some wanted to fight me.
I saw him for two years. At the end of two years, he came over without a bodyguard. At this point he’s never invited me to his house. But after two years, he got a promotion within the KKK. He became the national leader of the KK and invited me to his house. He has a Klan altar, with a Klan flag and candles. There was a cross with candles on it, with a sword across the table. I’d take pictures and took notes.
I began going to Klan rallies. He invited me. The Klans men and Klans women all are in robes and walk in a big wide circle with torches that are lit. They light the cross on fire. They give speeches at a podium, they have hot dogs and hamburgers.
I sit there watching there, taking pictures, taking notes. They have cross lighting and cross burning. A cross burning is when they put a cross on your lawn as a warning if there’s an interracial couple.
They talk about the future of whiteness. They talk about how it’s their country. They talk about the browning of America.
But our relationship would grow and grow. Eventually Mr. Kelly gave me his robe because he no longer believes what it stands for.
Getting KKK Leaders to Denounce the KKK
It took six and a half years for Roger Kelly to denounce the KKK.
He called me one day and said he didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.
He didn’t just hand his top position down, he shut it down.
Many people left with him. He actually began receiving hate mail from some of his own members anonymously. The same kind of hate mail at one time he would at one time send it out.
He began to see himself in the mirror. And this is a process I’ve repeated with many others.
Some Klan members it only takes a month, or a year or two.
I was talking to another KKK leader who was in my car. I was driving around and we got on the topic of black crime. He said black people had a gene in them that made them more violent. I heard this before. He said who’s doing all the drive-bys and carjackings in Southeast Washington? It was an all-crime neighbourhood.
So I asked, well who lives there? What about in Bangor, who’s doing all the crime there? White people because that’s who lives there. I told him I had never done a drive-by or carjacking. I asked how he could explain that. He just said your gene hasn’t come out yet. I’m dumbfounded. He’s smug.
I thought about it and said, you know they say all white people have a gene that makes them a serial killer. So I asked him to name me three black serial killers. He couldn’t name any.
So I named all the white serial killers. Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, I said they’re all white. You’re a serial killer. And he said he’s never killed anybody. I said your gene hasn’t come out yet. He said it’s stupid, and I said DUH. It is stupid, but just as stupid as what you said to me.
He thinks about it, and changes the subject. But based on that conversation, in four to five months he denounced the klan.
He called me and he said he was quitting. I asked him what he’d do with all his things. He said he’d trash it so I asked him for his klan uniform. He invites me to his home, and gives me his hood, his klan belt buckle, tie clips, his certificate, all kinds of things.
I didn’t know why I wanted it, but I knew this is history and you don’t destroy it.
The KKK is as American as Chevrolet
I know now I’m going to have a museum one day.
Now in the media, it’ll say black musician converts 200 klansmen. I didn’t convert anybody.
I didn’t even convert one. I just gave them a direction in life. I just told them what faults I saw in their ideology and laid out the facts. Even if they don’t see it right then or there, it rolls around in their head.That dissonance continues and they have an internal struggle. They have to make up their mind, do I continue living a lie or do I turn my life around?
Klan rallies are pressure cooker ready to explode.
People may think of klan people in a general way, as uneducated. But they can go any way from third-grade dropout to the president of the United States. Before president Harry Truman was the president, he was a member for a short while.
We need to take racism more seriously than we do.
We can sit back and see what it becomes.
Or we can stand up and decide what we want it to become.”
“I would much rather play music and make people happy than attend Klan rallies. But this is more important than ever.” – Daryl Davis, R&B and blues musician, activist and author
For more on Daryl David, here is his TED talk on why he, as a black man attended KKK rallies.
Here at Beyond the Beat, we believe kids are ready to learn about antiracism at any age.
It’s not enough to be neutral, even if it is a humbling learning curve for so many of us.
Here are some resources available:
Anti-Racism for Kids: An Age-by-Age Guide to Fighting Hate
How to Talk to Kids About Race, and Why You Should Start Now
Talking to Children About Racial Bias
We believe the antidote to racism is more genuine connections and conversations with people of colour, whether it’s just about music or experiences with racism.
If you have stories and perspectives to share please email firstname.lastname@example.org. These stories can be about your music journey, great moments with music and does not have to only be about race. Of course, those perspectives are more than welcome.)