I helped over 200 KKK members give up their robes – anti-racism activist
They say the number of white supremacist hate groups is rising. But today’s guest is convinced that you can defy their message of hate with… friendship. Daryl Davis, a musician who convinced hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members to give up their robes, shares his story.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Daryl Davis, musician and author of the book “Klan-destine Relationships”, welcome to the show. Daryl, you are quite famous for befriending KKK members and in many cases your friendship resulted in them living the Klan. You wrote a book about it. So when you were starting to work on your book did you yourself have any preconceptions about the Klansmen? I mean, how many of those did you eventually give up?
Daryl Davis: Well, yes, I did have some preconceptions about them because, you know, as a child we hear things, like, a tiger never changes his stripes, a leopard never changes its spots. So, why would I think that a Klansman would change his robe and hood? So, I had no intentions or perceived ideas that these people were going to change. All I wanted to know from them was - how can you hate me when you don't even know me, just tell me that and I'll be happy. But through the course of conversation and dialogue we began to humanise one another and we were fine. You know, if you spend five minutes with your worst enemy you will find something in common. If you spend 10 minutes you'll find even more. So if you nurture those commonalities you are forging a relationship. If you nurture the relationship you are then forging a friendship and through that friendship the things that you had in contrast such as a skin color or whether you go to a church or a temple, or synagogue, or a mosque begin to matter less and less. And so they began sharing that ideology. So over time just over 200 members have left. I don't want to say that I converted them, but I was the impetus for their conversion. They converted themselves. Well, you know, as a result of the dialogue that we would have.
SS: Yes. But when you say “I don't want to say “converted”...”, well, that's how it looks like, that you sort of converted them. But those that you did convert, so to speak, are not real racists from what I understand because if they were for real they wouldn't be talking to you. I mean, where does this collective bigotry come from if it is so easily dispelled with a good polite conversation five or 10 minutes of huminising?
DD: See, you are a rational person so therefore you're looking for rationale. Yes, these are real racist people. Indeed, there's no question about it. If they weren't they would not be in the most racist organisation known to this country - the Ku Klux Klan. So, yes, many of them are very hardcore racists. But the reason why some of them will talk... There are those who would not talk to me out of fear of me, out of thinking that they were that much superior than me and didn't have time for me or whatever. But those who did talk to me, yes, indeed were racist but they did not feel that they had anything to lose. You know, they want you to demonstrate their superiority over me which is why they talk to me. But over time they began to find out that we had more in common than we had in superiority or inferiority.
SS: So what were these people like? Tell me more about them: were they hardcore extremists, all of them, like you say, or was it more like a religious or political assembly?
DD: All across the board. A Klansman or Klan's woman is not stamped out of a standard cookie cutter, for example. They come from all different walks of life. Some joined the Klan because they're more politically motivated. They want to run for office and institutionalise their racism. Others are hardcore extremists. They want to get in there and do night riding - go out at nighttime and bomb churches and hurt people and things like that. So they come all across the board. You have people who are white separatists and you have people who are white supremacists.
SS: So when you were first invited to attend a KKK rally, going all alone, I mean, it must have been like stirring a hornet's nest... Were you scared at all?
DD: No, I was not scared, you know, when the leader invites you then you're okay because everybody there is going to do exactly what the leader told them to do or not to do. So, you know, even though there were those who resented my being there they knew that they'd better not do anything or the leader would have consequences for them. So because I was invited by the leader, you know, they complied.
SS: So you said that when you heard Roger Calley, the leader of the Maryland KKK, talk he said things you didn't agree with but there were also things you agreed on. What were they?
DD: This is correct. Well, for example, we both agreed that we need better education in our schools for children. We need to eradicate drugs from the street because, you know, there is a drug epidemic going on in the country. So we found things in common. Everybody needs education whether you're black or white. Drugs do not discriminate, they will take a white person out just as fast as they would take a black person out. So what I did was I found things that we had in common, and that way he could see, you know what, this guy thinks the same way I do about a lot of these things. And that would create, you know, the first steps of bonding.
SS: Talking about education you also said that hate comes from ignorance and we hate things we don't understand. But if you look at David Duke, the prominent white supremacist politician, I mean, he's got a bachelor’s in history and I heard that there were educated people, master's degree and all, in the Klan as well. Is there a special kind of ignorance in play, the one that's not addressed by formal education, so to say?
DD: Sure, there are people who are extremely racist and some of them have even had the highest office in the land, so to speak, we won't name anybody. But David Duke is a college educated man. We have had two presidents at least who’d been in the Klan. President Harry Truman had joined the Klan for a very short time before he became president. He didn't like it, he got out. President Warren G. Harding was sworn into the Ku Klux Klan in the Green Room of the White House. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had been a Klansman. He had to leave the Ku Klux Klan in order to sit on the Supreme Court. Senator Robert Byrd who was our oldest living senator here in the United States, who passed away just a few years ago, he had been a Klansman back in the 1940s. So, they come from all walks of life, from the third grade dropout to postcollege degrees. But, you know, it's how you were raised, that lasts with you your entire life. So they had this ideology for a long time regardless of how much or how little education they may have had.
SS: You've said that racists should be given a platform, that their ideas need to be challenged in the open. But, for instance, in the wake of the white supremacist attack in New Zealand the official response was pretty much to go for censorship. So do you think that even the ideas that lead to human deaths shouldn't be censored?
DD: I think what happened over there was definitely a tragedy, no question, and that guy needs to pay the consequences for what he has done. But I do believe in giving people a platform. We have the right to hate in this country but we don't have the right to hurt. So if they want to talk all that stuff, that's fine, but when they cross the line and began inflicting damage or hurt upon somebody, that's where it stops, that's where the platform ends and they are prosecuted. But we need to know what people are thinking because if we ignore them that doesn't do any good. The Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1865. Where are we now? 2019, why are they still here? Because we have ignored them. We need to listen to them, find out what's going on, what is wrong in their minds, what is it that they are fearing and then address those concerns. That's what I do and that's how I've been successful in influencing people to convert themselves.
SS: Have you ever met white supremacist hardcore enough that you went, like, “Oh no, this man cannot be helped”?
DD: Yes, absolutely. I have met some who will go to their grave being violent hateful and racist. Absolutely. There is no change in some of these people. But oftentimes there is somebody who is willing to sit down and talk. There is a possibility that they may absorb some of your information.
SS: So, Daryl, you've been criticised by some in the Black Lives Matter movement as willing to sit down with the enemy and thus legitimize them, give them a chance to say: “Hey, we're not racist! We just spoke to a black guy, see?”.So do you feel that you actually are giving these guys a good reputation by, you know, interacting with them in some way?
DD: No, because I've been at this long enough to know when someone is trying to take advantage of me for their own publicity or their own gain. I know that game very well. So, you know... And there are some who may try or who attempt to do that, but I'm well on top of that. And the ones who criticize me, you know, you say the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter is not a centralized organization. There are many-many-many different groups of Black Lives Matter, and they all are autonomous. I have some in Detroit and New York who contact me and say: “Hey, you know, do you do workshops? Can you teach us how to do what you do?” And then, there are others who simply rip me apart. So there is no cohesiveness within that movement, unlike, say, the NAACP or the Boy Scouts of America, where we have one central organization, and policy is created here and disseminated to all the other chapters, so everybody's on the same page.
SS: So white supremacist and far-right groups have existed in America for ages, but the groups emerging nowadays claim that they are a reaction to movements like Black Lives Matter, to the new, fiery and somewhat radical civil rights activists. Is it fair to attach some of the blame for the rise of extremism to BLM and its brazen, confrontational ways?
DD: No, not at all. And, of course, you know, people always want to blame somebody else for their issues. I can tell you what's going on here, in this country. As you probably know, whites are a minority, globally, but in the United States, whites are indeed the majority, and they have been so ever since... For 400 years. But by 2042, it will be like this, whites and non-whites, It will level out: 50% white, 50% non-white, by 2042. And then, shortly thereafter, it's going to flip. For the first time in the history of the United States, whites will become a minority. So white... While there are many-many-many white people who embrace that change, they realize, hey, you know, things evolve, and they welcome that change, there is a percentage of white people who do not embrace that change, and they are very disconcerted about it, and they are concerned that they are losing power. Because they have sat on the throne of power for 400 years, and now the throne legs are being chopped off, and they are being lowered down to the level of what they call the inferior people, the brown people, ok? So they don't want to give up that power, and that's why we're seeing more and more lone wolves going out and shooting up black churches, shooting up synagogues, or these groups that are creating mayhem trying to start what they call RAHOWA, or the race war. RAHOWA means “racial holy war”. So as we get closer and closer to this shift, change, we're going to see more and more of that, unfortunately, which is why it is impendent upon us to address these issues now, and not put them on the back burner. We should have been addressing them in this country decades ago, but we failed.
SS: You had the patience and the strength to sit down with Klan members, with Aryan Brotherhood, and talk sense into them. But Black Lives Matter are about different kind of racism, about police shootings, driving while black, black incarceration, and they focus on racism in the system, not just in fringe radical groups. Do you think what you do can help cops restrain themselves when dealing with black people? Have you ever tried to get a racist cop, or a judge, or a community activist to stop being racist?
DD: I just met last night with our chief of police, where I live. I meet with him the third Thursday of every month. And so yes, police can change too, and they definitely need to hear these conversations. No question about it. All forms of racism, whether it's systemic, institutionalised, or overt, like the KKK or neo-Nazis, you know, having their little rallies in the park, or whatever, - all of it needs to be addressed, and there is no one way to solve the problem. What we have to do is, we all have a responsibility to make our country the best it can be. But we have to work together, in concert, to achieve this, and we don't achieve it by putting each other down and criticizing what somebody else is doing. Those people who want to work with the systemic racism - that's great! That's fine, and they need to, ok? I work with individuals. Now, I can tell you this: the system does not run itself, it's the people behind the system, the individuals that control the system; thus, systemic racism. So if you change the minds of the individuals, then you change the mind of the systemic.
SS: In the mid-2018, you paid a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture with your friend, Richard Preston, the Klansman who shot at a black man during the Charlottesville rally. Do you feel the man showed any empathy? Did it make any dents in his perception of reality?
DD: Absolutely, it sure did. I talk to Mr. Preston every week. He and I are very, very good friends. Mr. Preston was able to see things... You know, he still has a way to go, don't get me wrong, he still has a way to go, but at least now he is going in the right direction. And again, that is a result of sitting down and having dialogue.
SS: All right, but in the Netflix documentary about you, you say the Maryland Klan chapter pretty much fell apart after you got Roger Kelly to give his robe to you. However, Mr. Preston seems to have re-established a chapter.I mean, this makes me wonder…
DD: Let me clear it up for you.
SS: Yeah, go ahead.
DD: Ok, when Roger Kelly quit the Klan, he did not pass it down to the next in command. He disbanded it, and it was gone. There was no more Ku Klux Klan in the state of Maryland for almost 11 years. Now, that does not mean that there were no more racists in Maryland, there are plenty of racists in the state of Maryland, but there was no organized racism, no KKK, all right? About eleven years later, Richard Preston decided he was going to create his own Klan, and it is a very, very small Klan, so it's not even considered a group. It's not even chartered, it's not even registered. Roger Kelly's was. So, essentially, there’s no real KKK.
SS: But my question bears a broader character. I mean, on this small example, this just makes me wonder, did you ever feel like no matter how many people you befriend or convert, there will always be someone else to take their place?
DD: Oh, sure. You know, that... It's reducing, but yeah, it's going to be like that for a while, until people become more educated about racism and begin to have more and more of these conversations. As long as we duck and dodge talking with people with whom we disagree, yeah, you're always going to have replacements. With the more we can feel, hey, let's talk about this, then we will see it vanish. I don't think racism will be here forever. Now, there are people who would disagree with me. I mean, it will be here for a while, but no. The more we address it and feel open about it, yes, we are eradicating it. That's my opinion.
SS: So you testified on Preston's trial in his defense. In 2004, you also testified in defense of Chester Doles, unit leader for National Alliance and Klansman with a history of violence. Both men showed no signs of remorse about their deeds, but you still call them friends. Do you think they were seeing you as a friend, or as a convenient PR tool?
DD: No, not at all. Both men are indeed my friends. And what happened with Chester Doles happens to a lot of people, black people, white people, whatever. When prosecutors don't have enough to put you away with what the evidence is that they have, to put you away for as long as they can, what they do is, they throw a lot of charges on you, hoping that one or more will stick, and you'll get that. Chester was definitely guilty of some of those charges, but there were others that were placed upon him, of which he was not guilty, and those are the ones to which I testified. Because even though I may not have agreed with his ideology, I don't believe in falsely placing charges against somebody or accusing them of something that they did not do. And in Richard Preston's case, I can tell you right now, Richard does have a way to go, but had that man been a white man, with the flamethrower, pointing it at his Klan group, Richard Preston would still have fired the gun. I know Richard very well, and I know Chester very well.
SS: But, talking about friends, how did your African-American friends react to you standing up for haters like that? Did anyone ever accuse you of some kind of betrayal or something?
DD: My friends - no, because my friends know who I am, they know what I stand for, and they know that I don't stand for racism, or anything like that. And I do not stand up for racism. Like I said, we have the right to hate, we don't have the right to hurt. So while I may not like what some of them are saying, or what some of them are doing, I will defend their rights, because if you take away their rights, it won't be long before mine or yours can be taken away. Now, those people, black people who don't know me, yes, I get a lot of pushback. Now, understand something. If I were to run across a picture of a black person shaking hands with a man in a robe and a hood, I would have a visceral reaction, like, what the heck is going on here? But me, I would read the backstory to find out why this is happening. And I’d say: “Oh, okay, I got it now, yeah, very interesting”. There are some people who will read the backstory, and there are others, who will go no further than the picture, they would jump to conclusions: “This person is an Uncle Tom, he's a race traitor, he's a sellout, he is a disgrace to our race”... Without even knowing the backstory. And I have had some of those very same people who have accused me of that later come back to me and say: “Hey, we understand you now”. And, a case in point, you mentioned the Netflix documentary. You saw that scene in there. A year and a half later, those same people reached out to me, and we had dinner together, and now we better understand each other. They don't agree with everything that I do, by any means, but they understand the work that I'm doing, and they appreciate it, and they agree: we all need to work together to do the best that we each are qualified to do.
SS: Daryl, thank you so much for this wonderful interview, and for everything you're doing for mankind, actually. Good luck with all your future endeavours.
DD: Thank you, and, you know, these are great questions you’ve asked.
SS: Thank you, that’s all about my team, they’re going to be happy to hear that. Thank you. So we were talking to Daryl Davis, musician and author of Klan-destine Relationships, discussing the roots of racism and best ways to deal with it.