Daryl Davis didn’t set out to become friends with extreme, right-wing racists, it just sort of happened. The way he tells it, it could have happened to anyone.
Davis was playing piano in a Country & Western band when he met his first in 1983. I don't know whether The Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Maryland still exists but back then, it was a part-petrol station, part-motel, part-music joint of the type you don’t get here. It offered a little something for everyone, Davis figured as he surveyed the all-white audience, or nearly everyone: The Silver Dollar was the kind of place blacks would be seen dead in.
But Davis stood out for other reasons. He’s an exceptional professional musician with a particular gift for boogie woogie, something which wasn’t lost on the audience, and one man in particular. Half way through the gig, Davis felt an arm round his shoulders and the heartfelt gratitude of someone overhwelmed by his performance.
Although the man told Davis he'd never had a drink with a black man before, the two had a lot in common, except their views on race. Egged on by his mates, Davis listened to his new friend tell him that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It was absurd enough to make Davis chuckle out loud; until the Klan business card (yes, they do exist) was pressed into his hands.
I can't speak for all black people but I imagine most might be able to tell you that they've experienced some sort of racism in their time - and Davis was no exception. As the son of US diplomats he spent a lot of his childhood living in different countries and experiencing different cultures. He only really noticed racism when he went back to America.
In April 1968, a couple of days after Martin Luther King's assassination, Davis noticed a shift in the nation's mood. He remembers being rescued from the middle of a Scout parade after racist bystanders threw missiles at him. He still didn't get it. But other incidents in his childhood made him realise that what his parents had told him was true: there will always be people who don't like you because you're black.
Once the penny dropped, Davis says that racism began to fascinate him. He spent years reading everything and anything he could to gain a better understanding, but it still wasn't enough. Meeting the Klansman in the Silver Dollar had made him realise that the best way to get inside the minds of extreme racists was to talk to them and spend time with them.
The Ku Klux Klan (named after the Greek word for circle, Kyklos), was formed in Tennessee in 1866. It peaked in the 1920s with over 4 million memberships nationwide but dipped again during WWII. Its only other spike came during the 1950s and early '60s in response to the Civil Rights movement.
Googling the KKK throws up some disturbing stuff, not least of all the images of lynchings. One in particular, a colour photo, stands out. Taken in 1981, it shows Michael Donald straining at a tree branch, his posture suggesting that death caught him mid-twitch.
It was the last recorded lynching in America: two years before Davis walked into the Silver Dollar Lounge and seven years before he begged his Silver Dollar friend to set up a meeting with the state Grand Dragon, Roger Kelly. The decision to write a book about the Klan wasn't without risks.
In KKK terms, the Grand Dragon is second only to the Imperial Wizard, or the main man who oversees KKK organisations across all 50 states. The Grand Dragon takes care of state activitiy and Great Titans run things at a county level. On the bottom rung is the district leader, or Exalted Cyclops to those in the know. So getting a meeting with someone as important as Roger Kelly looked unlikely.
But if you don't ask you don't get and Daryl's Silver Dollar buddy managed to hook him up. Maybe it helped that no one ever mentioned that the interviewer would be black.
The interview took place at the Silver Dollar Lounge (the motel bit), one Sunday afternoon at 5.15. Davis and his assistant, Mary, arrived early to arrange things and get iced drinks for their guests. At the scheduled time, Kelly knocked on the door, only it wasn't Kelly, says Davis, it was his Grand Nighthawk (or bodyguard, in KKK-speak) who knocked. Spotting Davis first, the Nighthawk stopped dead, his abrupt stillness causing Kelly, Grand Dragon of the KKK's Maryland section, to bump into his back. In confusion, both stumbled around, trying to regain composure. It might have been slapstick comedy at its best had Davis not spotted the gun, dangling from the Nighthawk's belt.
Miraculously, Kelly agreed to carry on with the interview. Both wary of each other and frightened that either could die any minute, the tension in the room was already palpable but worsened when both heard the same, suspicious, unfamiliar noise. Staring each other out, waiting for something to happen, everyone laughed when the mysterious noise revealed itself to be the ice shifting in the bucket on the table. With the tension cleared, the interview carried on as planned.
Undoubtedly, that interview paved the way for others, and opened the door to other invites, including Klan gatherings and rallies. I try to imagine what kind of reception a black man at a Klan rally might get, but can’t, although Davis says that he wasn’t scared. ‘Yes, they do burn crosses and they may sometimes preach a lot of hateful and violent things,’ he says, ‘but for me, it was not scary. I know the mentality of those people very well, whether I know them personally or not, so I know what to expect.’
What Davis means is that he's spent enough time reading about racist ideologies and spent enough time with racists to know that their thought processes tend to be the same; whether they're Klansmen or neo-Nazis. Just who those views belong to is across the board. ‘They come from all walks of life,’ he says. ‘They are school teachers, doctors, lawyers, unemployed, gas station attendants, cashiers...every socio-economic class. They could be your neighbour. What does a child molester look like? What does someone who is pro-choice as opposed to anti-abortionist look like?,' he asks. 'These are people who may, or may not, look just like you or any one of your friends.’
Other black people have called Davis an Uncle Tom, a traitor who sups with the Devil but I admire him. He's been attacked and subjected some pretty horrific things but he knows who he is and he knows who they are. It's something which inspires the confidence which enables him to do what he does. But he also learned early on that racism, extreme or otherwise, is irrational. Even hate groups hate other hate groups, he says, pointing to the fact that KKK groups with older members sometimes hate neo-Nazi organisations, because some of their fathers or grandfathers died fighting the Nazis.
Not all were open to Davis’ advances but some of the ones who got to know him (like Roger Kelly: Grand Dragon and later Imperial Wizard), gave up the Klan because for the first time in their lives they’d gone beyond their prejudices.
It sounds like the plot of a particularly implausible movie, but when you speak to Davis or listen to former Klansmen speak about him, or even just see him in photos posing with the robes of ex-Klansfolk (13 members of the Klan have quit and passed on their robes or some kind of KKK paraphenalia), it all seems very real. It also brings into question why his stupidly simple approach hasn't been adopted more widely.
‘People are creatures of habit,’ he says. ‘they tend to resist and are slow to gravitate towards change, yet they try to tell everyone else that they need to change: Look at all the advice the US tries to give other countries when we have similar problems here and we don’t follow our own advice.’
‘We (the United States) are very arrogant. We encourage other leaders who are at odds with each other and about to go to war to meet with each other and sit at the table and try to work out a compromise, yet this very country of mine refuses to do just that with our enemies.’
There’s a scene in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles in which the black sheriff dons a Klan outfit and only gets rumbled when someone catches sight of his hands. It crosses my mind when Davis tells me about the time he was a pallbearer for a Grand Dragon. ‘When I walked into the funeral home full of Klansmen and women, and neo-Nazis, they were completely shocked!,’ he says. ‘A few of them recognised me from having interviewed them, or had seen me at rallies and had been friendly with me. When they came over to me and shook my hand, the rest calmed down.’
Unfortunately, if they ever make a film of his life, it probably won’t be a comedy.