He is an accomplished blues musician who had the chance to play alongside the greatest legends of the genre such as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, but Daryl Davis is more known for his unusual side hobby, which is making friends with the KKK members.
It was 1983, Daryl Davis was the only black man in a country band which was playing at an all-white venue in Frederick, Maryland. After the show, an audience member came up to Davis and complimented his piano skills, saying he’d never heard of a black pianist play like Jerry lee Lewis. In his characteristic tone, Davis responded with: “Who do you think taught Jerry Lee Lewis to play that way?” The conversation quickly developed a friendly tone and after the man bought Davis a drink, he realized that was the first time in his life he had a drink or a conversation with a black man. The musician couldn’t believe the man’s words and thought he was joking, but the patron pulled out his wallet and showed his KKK card. As unusual and extraordinary this encounter had been for both sides, the white supremacist gave Davis his phone number and insisted that he’d call him next time he played the Silver Dollar Lounge, as he wished to come watch him perform again.
This was the initial spark that prompted Daryl Davis to embark upon his life-long quest that probably no one ever has attempted before or since. The 59-year-old has spent decades traveling across the US, approaching members of the Ku Klux Klan and similar hate groups, and not attacking, fighting or challenging them, but befriending them.
“How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?”
Davis had set out on a mission, and he starts it by confronting the members of the KKK with a simple question: “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” Many of his friends and people who didn’t even know him told him this was a dangerous thing to do, as KKK encounters with black people usually don’t end well. Still, Davis kept doing it and insisted on his calm and peaceful approach, saying: “Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform.”
The black musician claims he never set out to actually convert anyone in the Klan, he simply wanted them to answer his question. After he gave them a chance to get to know him, and treat them the way he wanted to be treated, many of the Klansmen came to a conclusion that their ideology is no longer for them. Davis undertook a study of racism in all its forms; from white supremacy to black supremacy, and anti-Semitism. He wanted to truly understand what motivated the hate and how it got such tight hold over so many people. Against all odds, threats, disapproval and frowned looks he had been receiving throughout the years, Davis achieved great success in his mission. “It’s a wonderful thing when you see a light bulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting,” said the author, actor and lecturer.
Over the decades, Davis has collected a garage-full of ceremonial robes and symbols given to him by former KKK members, or as he refers to them ‘friends who no longer believe in their former prejudicial views’. His unique, peaceful and intimate approach has also sparked disapproval and judgment from the black community. Black Lives Matter activists have said his actions take the black people twenty steps back while they fight to make ten steps forward. “Some black people who have not heard me interviewed or read my book jump to conclusions and prejudge me … I’ve been called Uncle Tom. I’ve been called an Oreo,” said Davis, but he also noted he doesn’t allow things like that to get to him.
Davis’ unusual story has become the subject of a new documentary called “Accidental Courtesy”, and the movie explores in-depth the extraordinary journey of one black man who is single-handedly changing the face of racism in America.