Daryl Davis: How can you hate me?

robe & hood

Daryl Davis with KKK hood and robe given to him by former Klan members who have quit the organization.

Editor’s note: We met Daryl Davis recently and asked him to tell us his story for this issue of The Banner.

“I had had a lot of racist experiences in my early life, and I had developed a question as a child. That question was ‘How can you hate me when you don’t know me?’

“As I got older, similar experiences continued. I’m a full-time musician, I have a degree in music, and I met a Klansman one night at a gig. I was playing with a country band in Frederick, Maryland, back in the ‘80s. I was the only black guy in the place, only black guy in the band, and when I came off the bandstand a white gentleman approached me. He said he enjoyed the music and shook my hand, and then he remarked that he had seen the band before, but he had never seen me, and where did I come from.

“So I told him that I just recently joined the band, and this was my first time in that particular place. Then he said, ‘You know, this is the first time I heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.’

“I was kind of taken aback, and I was kind of surprised that he didn’t know the black origin of that music. So I said, and I didn’t try to be facetious, I just asked him, ‘Where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play?’

“And the guy said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said to him, ‘Well, Jerry Lee learned to play that style from black blues and boogie-woogie piano players, that’s where that rockabilly, rock & roll, rollicking sound came from.’

“He said, ‘Oh no; no, no, no—Jerry Lee invented that!’

Billy Joel & Jerry Lee Lewis, Daryl Davis

Billy Joel, Daryl Davis and Jerry Lee Lewis at a recent get-together.

“And I said, ‘No he didn’t!’ And we argued back and forth, and I told the guy that I knew Jerry Lee Lewis personally, he was a good friend of mine, and he had told me himself where he learned to play.

“The guy didn’t buy it. He didn’t buy the fact that I knew Jerry Lee Lewis, he didn’t buy that Jerry Lee learned from black people, but he offered to buy me a drink. So I went back to his table. I don’t drink but I had a cranberry juice with him, and then he remarked that this was the first time he had sat down and had a drink with a black man.

“So I asked him why. I mean, at this point in my life I had sat down with thousands of white people or anybody else and had a meal or a conversation, and I couldn’t imagine anybody—he was probably in his mid to late 40s at the time—I couldn’t imagine somebody at that time of life who hadn’t sat down with anybody outside of their race.

“So I asked why, and he didn’t answer me at first. Then he finally came out and said he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I burst out laughing at that point because I thought he was kidding me, I thought he was pulling my leg. Why would a Klansman hang out with me, praise my piano laying and buy me a drink? So he drew out his wallet and handed me his Klan card. When I realized he was for real, I laughed again!

“I gave the card back to him and we talked about the Klan and other things. But it was music that brought us together.

“So years later, when I decided to write my book, because I still did not have the answer to my question of How can you hate me when you don’t even know me, I came up with the idea of getting in contact with this guy. I wanted to go around the country interviewing Klan members up north, here in Maryland, down south, in the Midwest, in the west, and get the answer to my question. Interview them face to face. There had been no books written on the Ku Klux Klan by black authors, they’d all been written by white authors. There are a couple books that have been written by black authors that talk about the Klan, but they probably talked about how they escaped a lynching. There was one written in the 1930s and one in the 1940s, but not written from the perspective of sitting down directly with their would-be lynchers.

“So I wanted that experience. I wanted to ask them face to face, how can you hate me when you don’t even know me?

“So I got in touch with that guy. I had him hook me up with the leader of the Klan here in Maryland, and then I branched out from there. My friend was very reluctant to do so, to put me in contact with the Klan leader, but I finally persuaded him to give me the information, and he gave me his home phone number and address on the condition that I not tell him where I got it.

“I had my secretary get hold of the Klan leader and schedule an interview, but not tell him that I was black. When we showed up, he was in for a little bit of a shock. We met in a hotel room. As he got over the shock he sat down to talk to me and it continued from there.”

Ultimately, these two people who talked to Daryl wound up quitting the Klan. “They did. They hung up their robe and hood.

“So my book consists of Klan interviews from all over the States. Some would talk to me, some would not talk to me. There were a couple who physically tried to attack me and all that kind of stuff. But the book came out, and right now I’m doing an update on it. I pulled it out of print and I’m doing a sequel to it.”

The book is called Klan-Destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan, and was first printed in November, 1997.

“I continue to go around the country, delivering lectures all over the country and even abroad, in other countries, on race relations here in the United States, as well as playing music. I went to a Klan rally back in March or April of this year out in Missouri, and I continue meeting with different Klan leaders around the country.”

We asked if it was still his top priority on the road, after all these years.

“Absolutely I’m still doing it. This country needs a voice to hear, and conversations. We all have to live here together. There is enough strife in the world, and enough people out there trying to destroy it, that we don’t need this racist stuff.

“To end with a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘We all came here by different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.’”

Daryl Davis brings his story and his music to the Dorchester Center for the Arts in Cambridge this Saturday (8/16) with a lecture at 4:00 p.m. and a concert at 7:00.

 

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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