Out in the Open

Fighting hate with friendship — one Exalted Cyclops at a time

Daryl Davis is a black blues musician. He's befriended hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, many of whom have since changed their views on white supremacy. And he’s got dozens of robes and hoods in his closet to prove it.
Daryl Davis at a KKK rally (Courtesy of Daryl Davis)
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Daryl Davis has got to be one of the only African-Americans who knows hundreds of members of the Ku Klux Klan. Daryl is a musician by profession, but in his spare time he's been on a decades-long mission to cut through hate.

It all started when he was performing live in a bar. A white man approached Daryl and said he'd never seen a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis before. Daryl, being a musician and personally knowing Jerry Lee Lewis, told him Lewis learned to play from black boogie-woogie and blues music. The man didn't believe Daryl, but invited him to have a drink at his table. 

"He remarked then that this was the first time he had ever had a drink with a black man," says Daryl. "I asked him why...and eventually it came out. He said that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan."

"He gave me his phone number and he wanted me to call him any time I was to return to this bar with this band because he wanted to bring his friends, meaning Klansmen and Klanswomen, to see this black guy play like Jerry Lee." 

Ever since then, Daryl has been befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan and attempting to love the hate out of them.
Daryl Davis at a Ku Klux Klan Rally (Courtesy of Daryl Davis)

'Your gene is latent. It hasn't come out yet'

Daryl remembers one KKK member — whose rank was Exalted Cyclops — who told him, "They say all black people have a gene within them that makes them violent.

"And I said, 'Look here man, I'm as black as anybody you've ever seen. I have never done a carjacking. I've never done a drive-by. How do you explain that?'" 

Without hesitation, Daryl says the KKK member responded, "Your gene is latent. It hasn't come out yet." 
Daryl Davis and the late Frank Ancona in front of the confederate flag. Frank was the Imperial Wizard of the largest Klan group. (Courtesy of Daryl)

Daryl was surprised by this answer but met it with a taste of the Klansman's own medicine. "Well you know, they say all white people have within them a gene that makes them a serial killer," he said. Daryl then listed off every serial killer he could think of, all of them white, and said, "Son, you are a serial killer."

"Daryl, I've never killed anybody," the Klansman replied.

Daryl shot back, "Well your gene is latent, it hasn't come out yet."

"Well that's stupid," the Klansman said. 

"Yes, it is stupid," said Daryl, "but it's no more stupid for me to say that about you than what you said about me."

Five months later, the Exalted Cyclops left the Klan. 
Former KKK member Scott Shepherd (left) calls himself a reformed racist, to which he credits his friendship with Daryl Davis. (Courtesy of Daryl Davis)

'Daryl is black and he is showing me love and respect and he is one of the races that I really condemned'

Daryl guesses he has helped about 200 people leave the KKK. One of them is Scott Shepherd.

Scott was deeply embedded in the Klan. He joined when he was 16-years-old and eventually reached the high-ranking position of Grand Dragon for the state of Tennessee. He recruited Klan members by targeting kids from troubled homes and he was friends with David Duke, then-leader of the KKK.

The first time Scott saw Daryl on TV, he thought he was a "nutcase". A few years later, when he saw him on TV again, he paid closer attention and concluded, "What he is saying is right. It made sense to me."

Scott eventually reached out to Daryl. They talked about music and then they talked about the KKK. Scott wanted to withdraw from the white supremacist movement and had nowhere to turn. Daryl was his guide out of the Ku Klux Klan. 

"The action of Daryl talking to me was one thing, you know, because I really didn't expect him to talk to me. He didn't know me. But just Daryl showing me his interest in caring was the biggest thing. From that point on, it was trust that I had gained for Daryl. It's just an amazing thing to feel, because Daryl is black and he is showing me love and respect and he is one of the races that I really condemned, that I really hated."  

You're not going to beat the meanness out of a mean dog. You start beating a mean dog, it's gonna become more mean. You start beating racists, they're gonna become more racist.- Daryl Davis

"You cannot hate the hate out of a person. You cannot beat the hate out of a person. But you can love it out of a person," Daryl tells Piya.

He believes if hate can be learned it can also be unlearned.

"It is learned behaviour and it is learned through dialogue," says Daryl. "If you can learn hate and racism through dialogue, you can also unlearn it through dialogue. And I have proven that. Scott has proven that by sitting down and listening to somebody of another opinion...they are unlearning their hate through dialogue and that's what's very important."