Many Americans cannot imagine becoming buddies with national leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. Daryl Davis doesn’t have to try. He did it.
The 47-year-old black man befriended many Klansmen, witnessed the resignation of several Klan members and wrote a book on his experiences. He has appeared CNN, Geraldo and Jenny Jones for his work with white supremacists.
Thursday night he spoke to a crowd of about 150 students at Corbett Hall’s lounge as a part of People Awareness Week. He detailed his friendships with Klansmen, played boogie-woogie piano riffs and showed Klan’s paraphernalia given to him by members who quit after building relationships with him.
“A lot of people probably came here thinking the Ku Klux Klan was no good,” said Kyle Sullivan, a freshman forestry major who attended the speech. “It reminded you that they are still people and that people can change.”
Davis landed the spot on CNN for attending a Klan rally with his friend Roger Kelly, a former national Klan leader.
Davis said he achieved this feat by treating Klan members with enough respect that they would take him seriously. After forging a relationship with Kelly, Davis began introducing him to different people with different viewpoints.
“I wasn’t trying to convert him. I was trying to expose him to people who were not like him and didn’t think like him,” Davis said. “I wanted him to see that maybe he was the exception.”
Davis learned as a child that racial hate was the exception to the rule.
Since his parents were foreign service officers stationed overseas, Davis grew up in an international environment where everyone got along. He claims he did not experience racism until he came to America.
Because of the tolerant environment in which he was raised, Davis didn’t recognize his first encounter with racism in the fourth grade. He was the only black Cub Scout marching in a parade and he thought people were throwing things at him because they did not like the scouts. He told his parents of the event later on and was stunned by their response.
“I couldn’t believe it when they told me that people I had never even met wouldn’t like me because of this – because of my skin color,” he said. ” I soon believed the truth after incidents like this kept happening.”
Since his first experiences with discrimination in high school in 1974, Davis has been fascinated with race relations. He began a lifetime of research during his studies at Howard University.
After looking though pages of writings on supremacist groups, he noticed that no black person, other than people who had nearly escaped lynching, had written a book on the Ku Klux Klan. A few years later, Davis decided he needed to write that missing book.
He and his Caucasian co-worker set up an interview with Kelly and took great care not to divulge his race until Kelly showed up for the interview.
Though they had differing views, Davis and Kelly got along because Davis genuinely listened to Kelly’s ideas and did not respond hatefully.
Kelly was one the first Klansmen to quit the organization after forming a positive relationship with a black person. Davis now possesses many Klan artifacts, including 13 Klan robes from supremacists who resigned after speaking with him.
“I’m glad that I have these things because it means that the people who had them no longer need them because they’ve changed,” Davis said.