Befriending enemies: Black musician who infiltrated KKK to speak in Edmonton

Daryl Davis has had more close encounters with members of the Ku Klux Klan than most.

'How can you hate me when you don't even know me?'

Daryl Davis, pictured above at a KKK rally, estimates that he has convinced about 200 people to leave the Klan. (Courtesy of Daryl Davis)

Daryl Davis has a rare kind of audacity.

A black man, Davis has spent the last 35 years befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

He has an official membership coin, and the discarded green silk robe of a KKK Grand Dragon in his closet. 

The blues pianist and race relations activist was in Edmonton Wednesday for a talk about his interactions with white supremacists.

The author of Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan and the subject of the 2016 documentary Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America, he has won numerous awards for his work.

After decades spent befriending his enemies, Davis said there is one thing he knows for certain.

Ignorance breeds fear.

"Our society can only become one of two things, it can be become what we let it become or it can become what we make it, and I choose the latter," Davis said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"It's very important that we learn how to communicate … and learn to respect each other."

His encounters with the KKK started unexpectedly one night in 1983. Davis had just played a gig at a country bar in Frederick, Maryland, and was approached by a man in the crowd.

The stranger told Daryl he'd never seen "a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis." 

When he produced his membership card, I stopped laughing."- Daryl Davis

Perturbed, Davis explained that he had learned to play from the same people as Lewis, from black blues and boogie woogie pianists.

"He was incredulous ... but he was fascinated enough that he invited me back to his table and have a beverage with him," Davis recalled.

"And then he announced that this was the first time he'd ever sat down and had a drink with a black man. I asked him why. "

The man hesitated, then admitted he was an active member of the KKK.

"I burst out laughing," Davis said. "I did not believe him, and then when he produced his membership card, I stopped laughing."

Davis continued talking with the man, who promised to bring his friends to the next gig. And he did.

Klan members became regulars at Davis performances, and he often spoke to them.

The experiences inspired Davis to write his book. He began to travel the country, interviewing Klan members about their beliefs. He had one question he needed to answer.

"How can you hate me when you don't even know me? That was the premise of the book."

Note: the video includes offensive language 


Daryl estimated he has helped about 200 people leave the KKK. One of them was Roger Kelly. 

In order to arrange his initial meeting with Kelly, then the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Maryland, Davis at first concealed his race.

"He felt that he was superior to me, felt that black people had smaller brains than white people, that we're prone to crime. We're lazy ... you name the stereotype. I heard them all."

Davis never expected that insulting and nerve-wracking first meeting would result in a decades-long friendship.

"We continued the conversation for years," Davis said. "He invited me to his home. He invited me to Klan rallies. And eventually, he gave it up as a result of our friendship.

"And today, his robe and hood are in my closet." 
Daryl Davis at a KKK rally. The musician and author has spent more than 30 years befriending members. (Courtesy of Daryl Davis)

Even after his book was published, Davis made it his mission to continue his work with Klan members. 

Throughout the years, he has been threatened, slandered and physically attacked, but said he never reacted in anger. Instead, he always tried to challenge people's beliefs.

"I see too much division in the country, and we've been here for 400 years. Why is this problem still in existence?

"What we do too much of is, we talk about each other, we talk at each other, or we talk past each other," he said.

"I have found that talking with each other is much more effective." 

Davis is speaking at the Shift Lab tonight, as part of a series sponsored by the Edmonton Community Foundation. The event, called Klan We Talk?, starts at 7 p.m. at the Quarter Note Hotel, 9576 Jasper Ave.