In the Lions' Den: A Conversation with Daryl Davis

In the Lions' Den: A Conversation with Daryl Davis

. 12 min read

Daryl Davis is a jazz musician who engages directly with members of the Ku Klux Klan to broaden their worldviews. He has directly inspired over 200 Klansmen to leave the organization, and dismantled the Klan’s operation in the state of Maryland. Davis spoke with Garrett Walker in July.

Tell me about your background.

My parents were US Foreign Service, so I grew up as an American embassy brat traveling all over the world. When I was overseas in elementary school, my classes were filled with other kids from embassies all around the world: Nigerians, Italians, Russians, Germans, Swedes, whoever. That was the norm, so we all got along. But when I came home, I went to all-black schools, or black-and-white schools. I was one of two black kids at my school in Belmont, Massachusetts. I had been living years ahead of my time when I was overseas.

A number of the guys in my class were members of the Cub Scouts, and they invited me to join. One day, when I was 10 years old, we had a parade from Lexington to Concord to commemorate the ride of Paul Revere. Everything was going smoothly. Then, suddenly, a group of four or five people started throwing bottles and small rocks at me. My first thought was that those people must have had something against the Scouts. It wasn’t until my Cub master and other adults huddled over me and escorted me out of the danger that I realized I was the only one getting hit.

Later that day, as my parents cleaned me up, they explained what racism was for the first time. I had never heard the word “racism” because I had never been exposed to it. It made no logical sense to me. How could someone hate me when they didn’t even know me? My parents had never lied to me, but I thought they had to be lying to me. People didn’t do things like that.

A month or two later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. And nearby Boston burned to the ground in the name of this new word I had learned. I now knew my parents had been telling the truth: racism does exist. But I still didn’t understand why. I read all kinds of books about racism, white supremacy, and black supremacy, but they never explained how people came to believe those ideologies.

How did you go from that experience to sitting down with members of the Klan?

I got my degree in jazz performance. Music is my profession, race relations is my obsession. In the 1980s, I was the only black guy in a country band, and usually the only black guy in the places we played. One night, I played this bar in Maryland called the Silver Dollar Lounge. After the first set, we went on break, and a white gentleman put his arm around my shoulder.

He said, “You’re the first black man I’ve heard play like Jerry Lee Lewis.” I wasn’t offended, but I was surprised; he was an older man, so he should have known the origin of Jerry Lee’s style. “Where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play?” I asked. “What do you mean?” he responded. I said, “Well, he learned from the same place I did: from black blues and boogie-woogie piano players.” “Oh, no, no, no, Jerry Lee invented his style. I’ve never seen a black man play like that.”

Even though I was friends with Jerry Lee Lewis and knew his background, the guy didn’t believe me. But he still invited me back to his table and said, “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever had a drink with a black man.” I asked why. One of his friends started saying, “Tell him! Tell him!” Finally, the guy said, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.” I burst out laughing because I didn’t believe him—until he pulled out his Klan membership card. Then I stopped laughing.

Still, the man was friendly, and he was very fascinated with me. Eventually, he gave me his phone number and told me to call him whenever I came back so he could bring other members. So I did. On my breaks, I would go to his table and say hello. Some of his friends would hang out, while others would see me coming and go to the other side of the room.

I eventually quit that band and went back to playing rock and roll. But some time later, I realized the answer to my question of how someone could hate me when they don’t even know me was right in front of me. Who better to ask than someone who would join an organization with a 100-year history of hating people? I decided to show up at the guy’s apartment unannounced. “Daryl!” he said. “What are you doing here?” After we caught up a bit, I told him I wanted to interview his Klan leader, Roger Kelly.

As the “Grand Dragon” of Maryland, Mr. Kelly oversaw all Klan operations in the state. It took some convincing, but the guy finally gave me Mr. Kelly’s phone number and address on the condition that I not tell anyone where I got it. Then he warned me. “Daryl,” he said, “Do not fool with Roger Kelly. Roger Kelly will kill you.” That was exactly why I needed to meet him. I had my secretary, Mary, schedule an interview without telling Mr. Kelly what color I was.

Right on time, there was a knock on the door of the motel room we had set up. Mary hopped up, ran around the corner, and opened the door. In walked Roger Kelly’s bodyguard, known as the “Grand Nighthawk,” with a handgun on his hip. He froze when he turned the corner and saw me, so Mr. Kelly, who was walking right behind him, knocked him forward. After I saw the utter confusion on their faces, I stood up and showed my palms to indicate I didn’t have a weapon. Next, I walked forward, stuck my right hand out, and I said, “Hi, Mr. Kelly. I’m Daryl Davis.” He shook my hand—so far, so good.

Before I could start the interview, he asked if I had any identification, so I pulled out my driver’s license and gave it to him. “Oh,” he said. “You live on such-and-such street in Silver Spring.” Why was this man looking at my street address? Was he going to burn a cross in my yard? I didn’t want to let him know that I was concerned, though, so I said, “Yes, Mr. Kelly, that is where I live. And you live on such-and-such street.” He smiled and nodded. If he came and visited me, I wanted him to know I might come and visit him. (I found out much later that I had been presumptuous. One of Mr. Kelly’s members lived down the road from me, and Mr. Kelly often traveled down my street to see him.)

Anyway, the interview went smoothly. Then, a little over an hour in, we all heard a crashing noise out of nowhere. Very fast and very short: chachut. Everybody jumped. I didn’t make the noise, so by process of elimination, I knew Roger must have made it. And I was wondering what I just did to irritate him. I flew out of my chair and got ready to come across the table. I couldn’t run. My only option was a preemptive strike: grab Roger Kelly and the Nighthawk, slam them both down, and disarm the Nighthawk.

At that moment, I looked right into Roger’s eyes. I didn’t say a word, but I knew that he could read my eyes. My eyes were saying, “What did you just do?” And his eyes were fixated on mine, and his eyes were saying, “What did you just do?” And the nighthawk was looking at both of us, and his eyes were saying, “What did either one of you just do?”

Mary, my secretary, was the only one who realized what had happened. The ice she had put in a cooler had melted, and a few soda cans had fallen down. We all began laughing at how ignorant we had all been. It wasn't a learning moment—that would come later. But it was definitely a teaching moment. We became fearful of one another over a bucket of ice.

Ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds hatred, hatred breeds anger, anger breeds destruction. We almost saw the whole chain completed: the bodyguard could have drawn his gun and shot me, or I could have gone across the table and hurt one of them.

How do you have productive discussions in those circumstances? What mistakes do most people make when expressing disagreement?

Racism is trickle-up. If you want to solve problems in a business, you often have to address issues at the top. It doesn’t work that way with racism. If you start with destruction at the top, it’s too late. Look at George Floyd. To address bigotry, you have to start at the bottom, addressing the ignorance that precedes fear, hatred, anger, and destruction. Thankfully, education is a cure to ignorance. Expose and educate people to the things they don’t understand. You can make laws, but people don't change how they feel until they realize that they’re wrong on their own.

Klansmen I interview often say, “Mr. Davis, you know black people are prone to crime. All you have to do is look at our prison system.” I listen, and I don’t interrupt. They’re telling a half-truth. Yes, there are proportionally more black people in prison than there are white people, but they’re not considering the inequality in the judicial system, or the role poverty plays in legal representation. Nevertheless, one’s perspective is one’s reality. Others have told me, “Black people are inherently lazy and scam the government welfare system.” Or they say, “Black people are born with a smaller brain. All you have to do is look at high school SAT scores.”

I find those statements to be offensive. But I am not offended by them. Most people would hit back: “No, you’re the criminal! You’re the one burning crosses! You’re the one hanging people from trees and bombing churches!” Now comes the hatred and anger. Now you’re on the verge of physical violence. Nothing productive can come from that; everything shuts down. But if I know what these guys are saying is not true, why should I be offended by a lie? I know who I am. All this guy sees is the color of my skin. And he tells me I’m a criminal, I’m on welfare, my brain is small?

When a Klansman walks into a room, his wall is up. I’m trying to bring that wall down.  I’ve been to 57 countries on six continents. But no matter how far I’ve gone, I’ve observed the same thing: we human beings all want the same things. We want to be respected. We want to be loved. We want to be heard. And we want the same thing for our families as everybody else wants for their families.

Roger Kelly wanted to be heard in that interview, so I let him be heard. I knew I didn’t fit into the categories he described, and neither did any of my friends, so I let him spew his hatred. And because I wasn’t pushing back on him, and he was used to pushback, I threw him off his game. Now the wall was coming down. He reciprocated by letting me be heard. I responded to some of his claims calmly but firmly: I don’t have a criminal record, I have never been on welfare, and I went to college.

Former Klansmen have told me what happens after a conversation like that. They go home, and they think about it, and they realize that they just sat down and talked with a black man for three hours. Maybe we didn’t agree on everything, but we agreed on some things. Cognitive dissonance starts to emerge: he was black, but he made sense, but he was black, but he made sense. The seed is planted for the next time I see them. Eventually, they have to decide: Do I ignore the fact that he’s black and change my direction, or do I continue living my life as a lie?

Is there a way to scale ideas like that? I’ve seen a lot of literature trying to “explain” frustrated white voters, but there isn’t a lot of goodwill toward the opposition on either side these days.

Okay, let’s talk about those voters.

Not everybody who votes for Donald Trump is a racist. I have a lot of friends who are Trump supporters, and they’re not racist. But I will say that every racist votes for Donald Trump. How does that work? I’m not a psychologist, but I know a lot about people and how they operate. To simplify a bit, you can put people into two categories: those who use emotion to make most decisions, and those who use logic to make most decisions. One is not better than the other, and no one is purely logical or purely emotional, but people usually lean one way or the other.

Donald Trump appeals to emotional people, whether they’re racist or not. He appeals to those who fear that their landscape is changing, those who want to Make America Great Again. Power is an emotion. Fear is an emotion. That’s what he’s appealing to. Racists on the right use the same kinds of appeals. I always hear Neo-Nazis and Klansmen say, “Daryl, I don’t want my kids to be brown.” They call it the “browning of America” or “white genocide through miscegenation,” and rely heavily on that idea to recruit new members. Those are codewords; they’re not speaking out against immigrants from Europe.

Here’s why that’s a problem. In 2042, just over 22 years from now, the United States will be 50 percent white and 50 percent non-white. There are plenty of white people who embrace that, but there are also plenty who will be very disconcerted about that. Power is all white people have known in this country for 401 years, and now some people feel their status being taken away.

It’s easy to identify overtly racist groups like the KKK, but it’s far harder to come to terms with our own tribalistic tendencies. How do we reckon with our personal biases?

Racism is to some degree cultural. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, a lot of black people moved to France. Why? Because French people treated black people more fairly. It’s not a white thing—French people probably have whiter ancestors than many white Americans.

What you said about tribalism is spot-on. Newton said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Reverse discrimination exists, too, but nothing can be reversed unless it’s gone forward first. Neither one of them is right; they both need to stop. And it all goes back to education. A missed opportunity for dialogue is a missed opportunity for conflict resolution.

Specifically, we have to lift the taboo off the topic of race while kids are young and sponging information. That may be uncomfortable for some parents. But when I was in junior high school back in the 1970s, sex education was being introduced, and parents freaked out. However, if we didn’t learn about sex from our parents, and we didn’t learn it from our teachers we were going to learn out in the street. Today, sex education is just part of the curriculum, and kids are better informed than ever before. The same thing needs to happen with race. Teach race and reinforce it; don’t confine it to the shortest month of the year.

Finally, we’ve been dancing around the recent protests. What do you think of the progress that’s been made? Where do we go from here?

The protests could have been handled better, but I think this is the greatest thing that has happened in the modern history of this country. I’m not downplaying any of the accomplishments of Dr. King or anybody else from the 20th century, but we're seeing the page turn a lot faster than it’s ever turned before. If police officers were ever fired or charged, it used to take months; now it takes a few days.

George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but there have been hundreds of George Floyds. This isn’t some anomaly; these things have been happening all along. We’re just seeing it more and more because people have video cameras in their phones. What is new, though, is the ripple effect. Statues are coming down. NASCAR—ground zero for the Confederate flag—has banned the Confederate flag. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s changed their brands. Mississippi removed a symbol of hatred from its flag. This is all real, meaningful progress.

Now, taking down statues and banning flags does not change somebody’s attitude. That’s where the education and exposure come in. One of my favorite quotes comes from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” What I have seen has enabled me to do what I do.

I know it can work. Tribalism can be resolved. We are not the Confederate States of America, we are the United States of America. That’s what we have to focus on.

The interview was condensed and lightly edited for clarity.