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The Black Man and the Klan

Daryl Davis’ Foray into the KKK
By Jeremy Morrison

Once the meetings had been arranged, there was only one thing left to do. Show up.

“And I’d show up and knock on their door and, of course, they’d freak out,” said Daryl Davis.

For a number of years he traveled the country in an attempt to learn more about the Ku Klux Klan. Why did they hate? And, why did they hate him?

“A lot of different answers,” Davis recalled. “None of them made sense, of course.”

Davis emerged from his explorations into the Klan with a book, “Klan-Destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan.” The author visited Pensacola Feb. 10 to discuss his work, presenting a lecture at Pensacola State College.

A day prior to his local engagement, Davis phoned from the road to talk about why he decided to take on such a project.

“It needed to be done,” he said flatly.

The Ku Klux Klan has long been shrouded in the mystery provided by robes and hoods and secrecy. The group has been explored by outsiders—even by black authors, in an academic sense—but Davis chose to get close enough to lift the veil himself.

“My secretary would call them,” the author said, explaining that he felt his voice might reveal his race. “I specifically instructed her not to tell them I was black.”

Davis traveled the United States in pursuit of Klansmen. He hooked up with Roger Kelly, Imperial Wizard of the Invincible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the journey began.

“I interviewed people from California, down South, some people from Florida, up North, the Midwest,” Davis rattled off road-worn memories. “Who they hate the most depends on where they are geographically—in New York, the Jews; out west it’s Mexicans; down South, blacks.”

While the Ku Klux Klan has existed in some form since the mid-1800s, the group has been relegated in the cultural psyche to the violent days of the Civil Rights era in the South. But Davis found that the Klan remains active—flourishing in some instances—throughout the entire country.

“In fact, it’s even going on more now with a black president and immigration,” Davis said.

The author wasn’t professionally prepared for the mission. He wasn’t a psychologist or a journalist or even an author, yet. He had a Bachelor of Music from Howard University.

“You don’t necessarily have to have a degree in sociology,” Davis laughed.

But the author did have some firsthand knowledge of the KKK’s most notable quality: hate.

The son of a Foreign Service officer, Davis spent his early childhood years in Europe and Africa. He hadn’t experienced the United States’ hotbed of racial tension until returning home at the age of 10.

Davis got a taste of the hate during a parade in Boston. While carrying the American flag for his all-white Cub Scout troop, the young boy was pelted with rocks, bottles and debris. When he was 15-years-old, the teen was told by another hate-based organization that he’d soon be shipped back to Africa. A few years after that, Davis said he was attacked by a racist cop.

The author went on to study music at Howard. He then enjoyed a successful career playing with music legends like B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Percy Sledge and Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires.

Davis still plays regularly today with his own Daryl Davis Band. But his musical endeavors also share the stage with the author’s work on the KKK. He travels the country speaking to audiences about his experiences studying the Klan, as well as pushing his main takeaway: “That people can change.”

Davis views his work as a bridge of sorts—a pathway to repairing a rift as old as this country. He didn’t begin his work with such lofty intentions. The author only intended on gaining a better understanding of his subjects.

“I never sat out to convert anybody,” Davis said. “That was not my goal.”

While most of the author’s Klan encounters were “cordial conversations,” there were a few heated exchanges and, after one incident, a court date. But then there were the other interviews, the ones that went into uncharted territory.

“When you sit down with someone one-on-one, that person becomes a human being rather than some abstract object of hate,” Davis explained. “When they get home, they have to mull over the fact that this black person did not fit any of their stereotypes.”

Davis approached his subjects with a basic question: Why?

“What’s funny is, you ask a lot of people, ‘So, why do you think blacks are inferior?’ They say, ‘I don’t know, that’s just the way I was raised,’” Davis said. “Why? Why? They can’t answer you. It’s not just the way it is, it’s what you have in your head—you’ve broken the cycle that their ancestors had started.”

In a few instances, Davis’ interviews reached transcendental realms. Klansmen began to question their beliefs. Some handed over their robes and hoods to Davis, who keeps them in his closet as trophies.

“Some were matter-of-fact,” he said of the handoffs. “Others, yeah, it was emotional.”

Davis said the audiences attending his lectures are usually positive. Sometimes a Klansman, or members of similar organizations, show up. Sometimes they shake his hand afterwards, other times they don’t.

“Every now and then someone will show up—a Nazi or whatever—and they’ll listen,” he said.

The author also continues to actively interview members of the KKK. With a book out on the subject, his name is obviously known in Klan circles.

“Eventually word traveled and they know who I am,” Davis said, admitting that interviews play out differently now. “They’ll have answers already prepared for a black interviewer. They want to make themselves sound legitimate.”

The Klan’s overall message—or at least the public face of that message—has also been modified over the years. Lynchings are no longer palatable, and segregation doesn’t seem to be gaining any steam.

“They all have different spins,” Davis said. “Like, ‘We’re not haters and we’re not racists, we’re just proud to be white.’”

But Davis’ mission remains unchanged. Why?

“Nobody is going back to where they came from,” the author said. “Blacks are not going back to Africa. Whites are not going back to Europe. We have to get along.”