Making friends with the KKK

African-American keyboardist-vocalist Daryl Davis employs his musical talents to stamp out bigotry.

DARYL DAVIS at Blues and Rock for Humanity this past November. (photo credit: US EMBASSY TEL AVIV/FLICKR)
DARYL DAVIS at Blues and Rock for Humanity this past November.
Artists, by definition, have to be courageous folk. After all, this is creation we’re talking about, viz. basically devising something – from nothing – from within themselves and proffering it to the world, in the hope that third parties will appreciate and embrace the fruits of the artist’s spiritual labors.
Daryl Davis is a 59-year-old African American keyboardist-vocalist who spreads his artistic wares across blues, jazz and boogie woogie. He was recently over here to perform at the American Center in Jerusalem, and elsewhere around the country, alongside Ethiopian-Israeli duo Hewan Meshesha and Yotam Cohen and their band. Besides getting members of the audience out of their seats and merrily hoofing it, Davis enlightened us about some of his sterling offstage efforts to do away with racism and bigotry.
In between leading his own band, and working with some rock and roll pantheon members as Chuck Berry, Percy Sledge and Jerry Lee Lewis, Davis has gone where few before him have dared, by facing up to, and even befriending, some pretty hostile characters.
How many African Americans, for example, have attended Ku Klux Klan gatherings, become buddies with some of the KKK’s most senior members, and even persuaded some of them to hang up their hoods and cloaks forever?
There might be something in the genes about taking a leap into the unknown.
“My father was the first black Secret Service agent,” notes Davis, although adding that Davis Sr.’s career path was not without its prejudice-fueled challenges. “He wanted to get into the FBI but J. Edgar Hoover, who was the head of the FBI, was a racist and he said we don’t want any black people.”
Luckily the US Secret Service (USSS) was a little more liberally minded.
“My father joined the Secret Service. It was all white but they hired five blacks at the same time, and my father was one of those blacks. He spoke nine languages,” says Davis proudly. “You know some people can just pick up an instrument and play. My father was like that with languages.”
Davis’s dad’s chosen profession also contributed to the musician’s daring exploits with the KKK, and his fearless all-embracing attitude toward people in general. Even so, the USSS was not entirely free of challenges for black personnel and, on the advice of US president Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, Davis Sr. transferred to the Foreign Service and made a little more career headway.
He was posted to all sorts of countries around the world, mostly in Africa. As a result, Davis spent much of his formative years outside the United States, and was not faced with trials of segregation and white supremacy of the 1960s.
“When I was at schools in different places, they were international schools so there kids from all over the world. We’d all sit together, kids of all colors and backgrounds. There was nothing special about that for me, then.”
It was a very different story back in the States.
“When I’d come home I’d go to a school that was either all black, or a black and white school, either in an area that was still segregated or newly integrated. There wasn’t the diversity then, in the States, that there is today. So, when I was overseas I was living literally 12 to 15 years into the future.”
Back in Boston, the 10-year-old Davis got something of a rude awakening. As one of only two black students in a suburban school, he hung out with his white classmates, often spending time at each other’s homes. Davis was even asked to join the Cub Scouts and, when the Scouts took part in a parade to mark the Midnight Ride undertaken by American Revolution hero Paul Revere, “my den mother asked me to carry the American flag,” Davis recalls. That proved to be a task too far for some locals.
“All of a sudden – bam! bam! There was a small group of people throwing bottles, soda pop cans, and I thought, why don’t they like the Scouts? What’s wrong with these people?”
Davis’s sheltered upbringing had left him blissfully unaware of the perils of anti-black sentiment of the day.
“I was trying to justify this behavior in my mind,” he laughs. “What had the Scouts done? That’s the definition of naïve.”
The den mother and others Cubs ran to protect Davis but he still looked the worse for the wear by the time he got home.
“My parents weren’t at the parade and they asked if I’d fallen down, and I told them what happened. So they sat me down and told me about racism.”
But the youngster couldn’t take it all in.
“I don’t have any brothers and sisters, so I always relied on my parents to guide me or answer questions. My parents never lied to me but I knew they were lying then. I was convinced they were lying. I couldn’t accept, or understand, that someone who didn’t know me, who had never seen me before, would want to hurt me, for no other reason than the color of my skin.”
A month later Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, followed by outbreaks of violence all over the US, and Davis finally got the message. Those tumultuous events also brought changes to the youngster’s social life, and his friends’ homes became off limits to him.
“Their parents wouldn’t let me in when I came over. Today I realize it is because they were afraid but, back then, I couldn’t understand it. It was very hurtful.”
Shortly after that, Davis’s father got another African posting, and the family only returned to the States when Davis was in 10th grade.
“We had a class called PTC – Problems of the Twentieth Century – and we had a great teacher who was always bringing in interesting people to talk to us,” says Davis. One of the guests was the leader of the American Nazi party, Matt Koehl, who spelled out to Davis, who was sitting in the front row, just what he and his cronies were planning for him and other racial minorities.
“He pointed to me and said ‘we’re going to ship you back to Africa.’ And then he said ‘all you Jews are going back to Israel.’ One of my friends asked, ‘What if they don’t want to go?’ and Koehl said we would be exterminated in the race war. That was the first time I’d heard the expression ‘race war.’”
As time went by Davis began researching racism, and discriminatory groups, and eventually came across Koehl again. It was eight years later, after Davis had graduated from Howard University in Washington, DC.
He’d heard that the Nazi party was planning a silent demonstration near the White House and he went along to confront Koehl.
“I didn’t confront him back in high school, because then I was a child and he was an adult, and I was taught to respect adults. But now I was an adult too. I went up to him and told him, who the hell gave you the right to make permanent travel arrangement for me?”
Koehl explained to Davis that the races had to remain “pure” if they were to be strong, hence the need for blacks to “sent back home to Africa.” Amazingly Davis says he just thanked Koehl for the explanation and went on his way. Rather than becoming agitated, at the very least, Davis says he treated the incident as an educational experience.
A little further down the road and Davis comes into direct contact with the KKK. He joined a previously all-white country music band and played a gig for an all-white audience. After the show a man called Frank James came up to him, embraced him, and complimented him on his musicianship, saying it was the first time he’d heard a black man play like Jerry Lee Lewis.
“It turned out the man was from the KKK, and I asked him where he thought Jerry Lee Lewis had learned to play music, and told him it was from black musicians.”
It was an pivotal moment for both parties.
“I’d read every book about the KKK I could lay my hands on, and nowhere did it say a Klansman would go up to a black man and embrace him. It wasn’t adding up. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him when I was around that area with the band and he would come to see us with his friends – meaning the Klansmen.”
That led to an improbable friendship, with James and Davis’s insatiable thirst for knowledge about racism, and need to understand the motives for baseless hatred, eventually leading to him meeting a more senior member of the KKK called Roger Kelly. To quote the closing line from iconic Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca, it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The Kelly connection brought Davis into contact with other KKK leaders, and he frequently attended Klan gatherings and ceremonies.
“Many of them ended up becoming good friends of mine, and giving up their robes and hoods,” says Davis. “Others didn’t There will always be those who don’t give it up.”
So, how does Davis explain his mostly warm relations with KKK members, and the fact that some mended their ways after getting to know him?
“I understand it. You are looking for rationale where there is none. It doesn’t sound rational for a Klansman to sit down to dinner with a black man. What you’re overlooking is, to be racist is to be irrational. So, they are already irrational, and irrational people do irrational things. That’s why a Klansman will sit down with me.”
Sounds simple enough, but you’ve got to have pretty substantial guts to travel Davis’s amazing road. If you are intrigued, and is hard not to be, you can discover more about what made Davis do the unthinkable in his niftily titled book Klan-Destine Relationships and in the eye-opening Accidental Courtesy documentary.