Daryl Davis is an American R & B musician, a master of Delta & Chicago Blues and the boogie-woogie style, on piano. The man can sing too, well enough to perform with the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jerry Lee Lewis and BB King.
“Both Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson, considered to be the greatest Blues & Boogie Woogie and Blues and Rock’n’Roll pianists respectively, both have claimed DARYL as their godson”. – daryldavis.com/musician-biography/
Davis has acted on stage, film and television. He’s a Christian, a writer, an activist and lecturer, who’s spent the last thirty years befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan and. Oh…Did I mention, he’s black?
Daryl Davis was born this day in 1958, the son of a State Department foreign service officer. His first ten years were spent in the world of foreign diplomats where children of every race and nationality were schooled together. This was a world of easy integration, not so the world he entered on returning to the United states, at age ten.
As a member of an all-white Cub Scout troop in the racially backward Boston suburb of Belmont Massachusetts (you thought I was going to say “Selma”), Davis speaks of being struck with rocks and bottles thrown by the crowd, until encircled by members of the troop.
Lest anyone object to my characterizing the “Liberal” bastion of Massachusetts as “racially backward”, the affront to common decency below was photographed in Boston in 1976, nineteen years after President Dwight Eisenhower sent Federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas.
Any fool can mistrust and even dislike those unlike himself. Most fools do. At ten years old, Daryl Davis understood as much and asked his father about the cub scout incident. The conversation led to a lifelong impression in Davis’ mind, that it made no sense. How can they Hate me, when the don’t even Know me.
Davis’ career as an activist began in a “white” bar in Frederick, Maryland, in 1983. Davis was playing Country & Western music when a white man commented, he’d never “heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis“. Davis explained “Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie woogie piano players and he’s a friend of mine.” The patron was skeptical and, over drinks, admitted to being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Eventually, the pair became friends, a relationship which would guide Daryl to leaders of the KKK.
Years later, Davis decided to write a book, answering the question that had dogged him, all those years: ‘Why do you hate me when you know nothing about me?’ That question had never been answered from my youth.” To satisfy his own curiosity, Davis reached out to Roger Kelly, Imperial Wizard of the KKK in Maryland. Let him tell the story:
“My secretary called him, and I told her, ‘do not tell Roger Kelly I’m black. Just tell him I am writing a book on the Klan.’ I wanted her to call because she’s white. I knew enough about the mentality of the Klan that they would never think a white woman would work for a black man. She called him and he didn’t ask what color I was, so we arranged to meet at a motel”.
The human brain is an awesome thing, the mind a strange and impenetrable place. Weighing in at about 3-pounds, the organ is comprised of some 86 billion neurons, each made of a stoma or cell body, an axon to take information away from the cell, and anywhere between a handful and a hundred thousand dendrites bringing information in. Chemical signals transmit data over minute gaps between neurons called synapses, about 1/25,000th to 1/50,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper.
There are roughly a quadrillion such synapses in any given brain, meaning any given thought could wend its way through more pathways than there are molecules in the known universe.
The possessors of such organs are themselves, strange and impenetrable beings. Some among us are impervious to new information. We all know the kind. Others are capable of the most gut-wrenching honesty, of challenging even the most deeply held beliefs in the face of new information.
When Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne, the “Stonewall of the West” made the “Monstrous proposal” of arming slaves in the waning days of the Civil War, General and former Georgia Governor Howell Cobb gave us the faintest glimpse through that keyhole: “You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
“And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
Roger Kelly himself was a man, capable of looking through that keyhole. What he saw didn’t make sense to him either. Kelly arrived with an armed bodyguard, himself armed and wearing military-style fatigues. That first meeting must have been as tense as two cats in a wet sack. In time, the man’s views began to soften. Later on, Davis invited Kelly to be godfather, to his daughter. Kelly left the Klan and gave his outfit to Davis, who kept the robes in hopes of one day showing them in a “Museum of the Klan”.
Davis claims to have befriended over 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan. He claims direct responsibility for 40 to 60 of them leaving and indirectly, another 200. Davis believes Klansmen hold misconceptions about blacks based on brainwashing and unfamiliarity. He wrote of one such conversation in his 1998 book, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan:
One Klansman informed Davis, “All black people have a gene in them that makes them violent “. Davis responded, ‘You know, it’s a fact that all white people have within them a gene that makes them serial killers. Name me three black serial killers.’ He could not do it. I said ‘you have the gene. It’s just latent.’ He said, ‘Well that’s stupid.’ I said, ‘It’s just as stupid as what you said to me.’ He was very quiet after that and I know it was sinking in.”
The man left the Klan several months later, giving Davis his robes. They were the first he ever received.
In an age of political race baiters and racial arsonists, (they’re a dime-a-dozen on TV), Daryl Davis is a man with the strength of character, the intellectual curiosity and the physical courage to challenge long-held stereotypes that many among us, hold about one another.
The man is a living tribute to the idea that if we just ignore the crazies, the rest of us can figure out how to get along.