It began in Tulsa, Okla., in 1979.
Clad in his signature white sheet and hat, Johnny Lee Clary and his fellow Ku Klux Klan members showed up at the home of black civil rights leader the Rev. Wade Watts, whom Clary had met earlier on a radio show, and proceeded to terrorize him.
They paraded around his yard, shouting racial slurs and burning a cross on his lawn. Clary, the leader of his Klan group at the time, challenged Watts to show himself. So he did.
When Watts opened the door, he told the men they were early.
“What do you mean?” Clary asked.
“Well, Halloween is four months away.” And with a smile and a wave, he went back inside.
That was the first of many encounters that prompted Clary to question his role as one of the most powerful white supremacists in the country. It didn’t happen overnight, but if it weren’t for people like Watts, Clary said he would never have seen how abominable his life had become.
Now, Clary has done a complete about-face. He’s in Rocky Mount until Monday, visiting area churches, schools and the Holiday Inn Gateway Convention Centre on Sunday to spread his message of love and acceptance. His new tell-all book, “Beneath the Sheets: The Ku Klux Klan Exposed,” is for sale through his Web site, www.johnnyleeclary.com. He’s appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Geraldo,” “Sally Jesse Raphael” and “The Jerry Springer Show,” both as a Klan spokesman and later as a motivational speaker against the same hate groups he once advocated.
Clary rejects any claims that he’s a victim. His choices were a product of his own free will, and he said he’d take it all back if he could. But free will or not, his upbringing was so full of hate and ignorance that continuing that path just seemed to make the most sense.
“I take full responsibility for my actions,” the 44-year-old native of Dell City, Okla., said. “I’m not one of those people that says, ‘I joined the Klan because my daddy taught me to hate, or my grandfather taught me to hate,’ or whatever. That’s hogwash. It’s time for people to take responsibility for their actions, so I’m starting with me.”
At 11, Clary’s father killed himself in front of him. His distraught mother sent him to live with his older sister in eastern Los Angeles, where he got mixed up with gangs and withstood daily episodes of violence.
Three years later, he saw a television show featuring David Duke, then Grand Wizard of the nationwide organization. Clary wrote a letter requesting more information, and within days, they were knocking on his door.
“They don’t waste a second,” he said. “They told me they would take care of me, they’d give me the family I didn’t have. It sounded pretty good to me.”
Clary spent 16 years as a White Knight, which is considered the original Ku Klux Klan. He devoted his life to unifying white supremacist groups across the country.
“It was supposed to be my legacy,” he said.
He never got a chance to carry out that legacy. The FBI was hard on his tail during most of his reign as Imperial Wizard, a position he entered in 1988. His wife divorced him, and he lost custody of his daughter because of his involvement with the Klan. His girlfriend turned out to be an FBI informant, which he called “the ultimate backstabbing.”
Though he never killed anyone, Clary narrowly escaped jail several times after reports of assaults and harassment threatened to end his hate career. He was getting tired of being a target for law enforcement.
Thus began his long and emotional escape from the Klan’s clutches. What began as a fear of imprisonment eventually evolved into a moral awakening, and he resigned from the Klan in 1989 at age 30.
That’s when his life fell to pieces.
“Nobody wanted to give me a job,” he said. “My family and friends wanted nothing to do with me. I started drinking heavily. My money ran out. I was about to lose my home. I thought I’d end up a hobo on the street, sleeping on park benches, asking for handouts. Nobody was going to help me. So finally, I decided it’s over.”
Clary wrote a suicide note and picked up his gun, ready to follow in his father’s footsteps. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted his Bible, which he hadn’t picked up since childhood. At first, he turned away, but something unexplainable told him to start reading.
Moments later, he was on his knees, sobbing and praying for forgiveness. And the next day, he said, he got a miraculous phone call.
It was an old friend in the automobile industry, asking if he’d like to work as a car salesman.
He began work that same day and sold a car within 30 minutes, he said. Convinced he’d been granted a second chance, Clary vowed to spend the rest of his life committed to God.
“I started reading the word, and I started getting around people that thought positive and acted positive and were doing something positive with their life, and I found out that good friends come in all colors,” he said. “I just became a whole new person.”
As a motivational speaker, Clary has set records for crowd numbers in Australia, where he’s developed a loyal following. He said he’s been tapped by Hollywood producers to make a film about his life, and he’s waiting to hear from Oprah’s people about another appearance.
A tribute to the Rev. Wade Watts, who died in 1998, is featured on Clary’s Web site. Years after their racially charged encounter on a talk show, they reunited and became best friends. Clary was even named godfather of one of Watts’ 14 children.
He has developed similar relationships with many of the people he once hated. He’s asked them for forgiveness, and luckily, some of them have done so. But Clary hasn’t forgotten.
“It was a horrible organization,” he said. “I didn’t know a thing about God. They had me believing that God wore a white sheet and burned crosses on Saturday night.”
Clary will tell his story at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Gateway Center. He visited the Rocky Mount Preparatory School on Friday and also will be speaking to students at Faith Christian School at 8:50 a.m. Monday.