How do you go from being the imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to preaching about love?
You have to fall off your horse, said Johnny Lee Clary, who made the transformation.
Clary, an ordained minister who now travels the globe talking about his conversion to Christianity and speaking out against hate groups, will tell his story at Christ Alive Church in Conover on Sunday.
He said the KKK fed on his need for love when he was an outcast teenager. But when his new “family” turned on him, he said, he hit bottom and found Christ.
The Observer talked with Clary recently about his dramatic life and his crusade to replace hate with love.
Q. Why did you join the KKK?
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Because I was a kid looking for acceptance. I was a kid nobody wanted. My father committed suicide when I was 11, and my mother moved me away right after the funeral, put me on a bus and sent me to California to live with my sister.
My grandfather didn’t want me. I was living in the streets in East L.A. with my sister. … I’d written David Duke (imperial wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s) a letter — I’d watched him on television — and told him the things I’d been going through.
A Klansman came around to see me. He told me, “What you need is a family.” He said, “You’re smart. How many teenagers are proud of their race and culture and heritage like you are? You can be somebody with us.”
This is why I work with kids in gangs today, because I know why they join gangs. It’s always the kid from a dysfunctional family. That’s who these organizations go after.
Q. Did most of the people who knew you at the time know that you were KKK?
Yes, because I chose to let them know. There’s two types of members, open members and secret members. Secret members hold pretty good jobs generally. They know if it gets out that they’re a member of the KKK, more than likely they’ll be losing their job.
I didn’t care who knew I was in the Klan. I even wore T-shirts to school that showed a night rider on a horse with a burning cross and a white sheet and hood. That’s what elevated me into KKK leadership, because leaders have to be known, for the most part.
Q. Is the main motivation of KKK members hate, power or belonging?
I think it’s all three. One of the things the Klan is notorious for doing is what I call ambulance chasing. They look for racial turmoil, jump in and take advantage of it. They have people look at the newspaper and go and pass out fliers and start recruiting.
Q. How did you go from the KKK to preaching love?
Once I got to be imperial wizard, I didn’t like it. I resigned and then they all began to turn on me. They started rumors that I quit because I was weak, or I sold out to the FBI.
I left the Klan. Over the years, different Christians witnessed to me: my best friend in high school, my grandmother, the Rev. Wade Watts, who was head of the NAACP in Oklahoma — when I debated him, he said, “Son, you can’t do enough to me to make me hate you.”
I had sacrificed a lot because of the Klan. I was a professional wrestler known as Johnny Angel, and I lost promotion because of the Klan. It cost me a marriage, a chance to raise a daughter. I couldn’t get a job once I left the KKK. I was in a second marriage that failed. I lost almost every penny I had.
I had decided to follow in the footsteps of my father and commit suicide, and I picked up a Bible and started reading about the prodigal son. Finally, I gave my heart to Jesus and asked for help. The next day, a guy called and offered me a job. About a year later, I was watching a talk show about kids who joined a white supremacist group. I said, “These kids were me.” It motivated me to speak against hate groups and the Klan.
Q. What’s the most common question you get from your audiences?
“Why does the Klan burn the cross?” or “Have you ever killed anybody?” When they ask me the latter one I say, “Only people who ask me that question.” The KKK burns the cross because they’re motivated by hate. … The Klan uses fear to control people.
Q. Have you ever been in contact with any of your old KKK friends?
I have over the years converted some. I am starting a former-racist network. There’s a woman who was involved in the Aryan Nation.
I’ve got people involved in it who were in different hate groups overseas. We’ve got to keep hate groups from rising until they’re a big, giant political power.
Q. How do black people generally receive you?
They receive me extremely well. As a matter of fact, I just spoke in a church the other day where a whole black family came. They all came forward and gave their lives to Christ.
Black people know when they see former KKK that they’re going to get the answers. They come, and they’re curious. There are black people who are skeptical and some white people who are skeptical. I have to live with that.
Q. What surprises you most about your audiences?
I’m surprised if anybody can come and hear this and still leave prejudiced and hateful.
Q. What’s your take on the state of today’s race relations?
It’s obvious that it’s worse. We all have to get involved. It can’t just be a preacher preaching a sermon.