Johnny Lee Clary understands the natural tendency for doubt that some people bring to his claim of a conversion from hatred for all humans not white to absolute love for all humanity — red and yellow, black and white — demanded in the doctrine Christianity.
Given the podium for a few minutes, Clary — the past Grand Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — will chip away at the doubts of even the most skeptical listener.
He casts out fear not with tedious theological assertions — his explanation for a life that has swung from the polar extremes of behavior are practical enough to sustain a decade-long career as a Christian motivational speaker.
“I was taught racism as a child,” said Clary during an interview Friday at The Bulletin. “I remember the first black person I ever saw. I was 5 with my dad going into a grocery store and he (the black man) was coming out.”
“I said: ‘Look, there’s a chocolate-covered man,’ and Dad said ‘No, that’s no chocolate man — that is a … the n-word.’”
The observation was followed by a brief tirade of racism and bigotry that sowed the first seeds in the young mind that grew and blossomed into full-grown hate, but not without some nurturing.
His grandfather was a more vocal racist even than his father.
At 11 years old, Clary would witness his father’s suicide. He witnessed and confronted his mother’s alcoholism and infidelity to his father. When his father died, she immediately sent him to live with a sister in East Los Angeles.
“I didn’t have the love a boy should have for his Mom,” said Clary.
At 12 and 13 years, young Clary learned brutality, racial division and hate on the streets of Los Angeles. Street gangs were divided along race and ethnic lines, and Clary grew to despise nearly all non-whites. Clary said he was alone, failing in school and living with a sister he believed was interested in him for no reason other than the U.S. war veteran survivor check he received each month.
Clary said he found a salve for those feelings of loss, betrayal and failure in the Ku Klux Klan organization headed by David Duke, then a clan leader in the national spotlight making appearances on Los Angeles television stations. One of those broadcasts contained a telephone number to contact Duke. Clary did, and soon was corresponding by mail. Then a KKK recruiter appeared at the door asking to interview young Clary for his opinion on the races and racism.
“No one had ever asked for my opinion about anything,” said Clary.
He soon was steeped in KKK doctrine of white supremacy, challenging teachers at school regarding the accuracy of history on the Nazi holocaust against Jews in World War II and fomenting hate toward his black classmates.
He returned to Oklahoma, where he found a family with the KKK near McAlester and quickly rose through the ranks as a recruiter and on to the level of Grand Imperial Wizard.
Clary said his conversion began slowly with an appearance on a radio talk show hosted by KOMA radio in Oklahoma City.
Appearing on the show with Clary was a local black pastor, the late Rev. Wade Watts, who would engage Clary in ways he hadn’t prepared for.
Watts was an uncle to former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.
Entering the studio, Watts immediately told Clary he loved him and reached to shake hands.
The two were shaking hands before Clary realized that such interaction with a black person was forbidden by KKK rules.
“I don’t know what I expected. I was looking for some big Black Panther-type with a big Afro giving the black power sign,” said Clary. “I remember thinking: How can I get to the person?”
Outside the radio station, Clary was greeted by a group of supporters from Watts’ congregation.
Watts fetched an infant from a woman in the crowd and held the baby up for Clary to see.
“I could see this baby was half black and half white,” said Clary.
‘”How can you fault this baby for being what she is?”‘ Clary recalled were Watts’ words.
“I wasn’t ready for that,” said Clary. “Then the baby smiled at me.” He said he felt affection for the infant and wanted to touch her. That was Watts’ adopted daughter, Tia.
Following the talk show, it was concluded by Clary and his Klansmen that Watts had made Clary and the Klan look foolish.
Clary said he engineered a cross-burning near Watts’ home, then dumped trash and dead animals on Watts’ lawn and made threatening telephone calls to the Watts home.
Finally, the Klan set fire to the building where Watts worshipped with his congregation.
Watts greeted every threat with kindness, said Clary.
A short time after the broadcast, Clary and a gang of KKK members found Watts and friends having a chicken dinner at a local restaurant and challenged his right to be there. Clary told Watts that whatever he did to the chicken, he would do to him.
“He picked up the chicken and kissed it,” Clary said. Not only were the people around the incident amused, but his own Klan followers laughed out loud.
Along the way, Clary said he embarked on a career as a professional wrestler with the character name “Johnny Angel.” At the time, the KKK was blending with neo-Nazi groups and Skinheads that the FBI believed was a more serious threat to national security than the old Klan. The feds disclosed that Johnny Angel was in real life a KKK leader, effectively ending his career.
All he had left was the Klan and a girlfriend, who later turned out to be an FBI undercover agent who discovered the identities of several “secret” Klan members who were in turn disclosed publicly.
“These were a lot of police officers,” said Clary. “People were losing their jobs for being in the Klan.”
Meanwhile, the association with radical neo-Nazi groups was making other Klan members uncomfortable. The FBI was becoming more and more aggressive making weapons cases against Klan members. It became apparent to Clary the FBI would see him in prison if something didn’t change.
Clary repented, for the wrong reason, and resigned from the Klan. Then, those he had recruited turned on their former leader, saying a true Klansman wouldn’t abandon the organization because of the threat of imprisonment.
“They called me a stoolie and coward. I said, ‘OK, you go to prison for the Klan,’” said Clary. And for the first time in a long time, Clary was truly alone and without friends or family, again.
He turned to alcohol and was once prepared to take his own life.
Instead he prayed, opened a Bible and began seriously to read the scriptures. “I had a Bible; everyone in the Klan had a Bible,” said Clary. “We didn’t read them.
“I read that Jesus died for all people,” said Clary, emphasizing the word “all.” He began attending church and became a serious student of God’s word. During his first worship days at the Oral Roberts University Mabee Center, he was recognized by members as the Klan leader. The church was wary of the new member. Gradually, he was accepted as a believer.
As Clary’s faith increased, he called Watts to ask forgiveness. Watts invited Clary to witness for his church.
The greeting in the building he once tried to burn down was a cool one.
He began the sermon attempting to explain himself and his conversion, but the skepticism of his listeners became more obvious.
“I gave up and just preached Jesus,” said Clary, and that awakened the “Amen” corner, he said.
During the altar call, a teenage mulatto girl answered his invitation. She was the infant girl Watts had held in arms outside the radio station.
‘”I want to know the Jesus you know,’” Clary recalled she said. Clary said he has since adopted Tia as a goddaughter.
Clary agrees that not everyone will come to a reckoning with hatred through a religious experience such as his. Clary urges those people to look at the outcome of separation and fear.
“Men hate what they fear,” said Clary. Unity and reconciliation are concepts that people should examine for a secular if not a religious response to hate.
“Let little children play together and see what happens,” said Clary. “They don’t hate.
“Love is a learned response,” said Clary. “I learned it in the Gospels.”
Clary is visiting friends in Mountain Home this weekend and will be worshipping at First Assembly of God Church in Mountain Home Sunday.