There is a musician named Daryl Davis who tells the story in a video online of why he, as a black man, attends Ku Klux Klan rallies. The story begins in 1968 when he was 10 years old and was living in Belmont, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. He was one of only two black kids in the entire area. As a Cub Scout, he participated in a parade that commemorated the ride of Paul Revere and one of his den mothers appointed him to carry the American flag. As he was marching in the parade, some of the white people in the crowd started throwing bottles, cans, rocks, and debris at him. Daryl did not understand what was going on and thought that these people just did not like the scouts. But then he realized that he was the only one being hit by the things thrown from the crowd. The scout leaders rushed over to him, huddled over him, and quickly got him out of the way. The whole time, he asked the scout leaders why the people were doing this, but no one answered him. When Daryl got home and his mother began treating his scrapes with Band-Aids and ointment, she asked him how he fell down and he explained to her what happened. His parents sat him down and explained racism to him for the first time in his life. As a 10-year-old boy this did not make sense to Daryl. He kept thinking to himself, “how can someone hate me when they don’t even know me, simply because of the color of my skin?”
As he grew up, he searched continually for an answer to this question. He read books on black supremacy, white supremacy, the Nazis in Germany, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and anti-Semitism as he tried to understand why certain people could hate him so much when they don’t even know him. Yet these books did not provide him any satisfactory answers. When he grew into adulthood, he became a musician with a band and had a secretary who would schedule his performances. At one point, he decided to do the unthinkable – to get into contact with a leader in the Ku Klux Klan and find out the answer to his question right from the source itself. He had his secretary arrange a meeting in a motel room with Roger Kelly, who was the Imperial Wizard (the national leader) of the KKK at the time. Daryl instructed his secretary not to tell the leader that he was black. Someone close to Daryl warned him not to deal with Roger Kelly. They said, “Do not fool with Mr. Kelly, Daryl. He will kill you.” But Daryl was determined to find an answer to his burning question.
Daryl went to the motel room with his secretary and waited for Roger Kelly to arrive, which he did right on time. Mr. Kelly came with his bodyguard who was armed with a semi-automatic on his side. Of course, they were taken aback when they laid eyes on Daryl and saw that he was a black man. But Daryl was very cordial with the KKK leader. He invited him to sit down with him and they began having a conversation with one another. During the discussion, they agreed on some things and disagreed on other things. But the KKK leader made it clear to Daryl that he, the white man, was superior to him, the black man. Daryl wasn’t there to fight with him, only to learn from him. Daryl truly wanted to understand where this white supremacist ideology came from so that he could try to figure out how to address it.
After this conversation in the motel room, Daryl would continue to invite Roger to come to his home to talk, although Roger would never reciprocate and invite Daryl to come to his home. Sometimes, Daryl would have some of his Jewish friends, black friends, and white friends come over because he wanted Roger to experience other people. In these conversations, they would agree on some things and disagree on others, but their discussion never devolved into fighting. A couple of years later, Roger finally started inviting Daryl to come to his house and he even invited him to come to KKK rallies. Daryl attended these rallies and took notes as he continued to try to understand their ideology. This unusual arrangement between a black man and a KKK leader eventually caught the attention of CNN, and they aired a spot about it on their channel. At one of the rallies that was recorded by CNN, Roger addresses the Klan and during his speech he points to Daryl, the black man, and says: “I’d follow that man to hell and back because I believe in what he stands for and he believes in what I stand for. We don’t agree with everything, but at least he respects me to sit down and listen to me, and I respect him to sit down and listen to him.”
In the online video in which Daryl gives his talk about his experience with the KKK leader, he says to the audience: “Respect is the key. Sitting down and talking – not necessarily agreeing – but respecting each other to air their points of view. Because of that respect and my willingness to listen and his willingness to listen to me, he ended up leaving the Klan, and there’s his robe right there.” Daryl then walks over to a wardrobe, takes out the Klansman’s robes, and shows them to the audience. Daryl then says, “I am a musician, not a psychologist or sociologist. If I can do that, anybody in here can do that. Take the time to sit down and talk with your adversaries. You’ll learn something; they’ll learn something. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting – they’re talking. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. So keep the conversation going.” Ever since Daryl began attending KKK rallies, he has convinced 200 men to leave the KKK.
I think this inspiring story of Daryl, a black man who converted a KKK leader with kindness and respect, is a good illustration of Our Lord’s words in Matthew 5:44 about loving one’s enemies. Jesus says, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” There are Catholics today who perceive all sorts of people as their enemies including but not limited to Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, leftists, far-right extremists, communists, fascists, members of the LGBTQ community, and so on. We tend to fear those whom we do not understand, and our fear is often irrational and based on faulty information, media sensationalism, or even downright lies. Instead of seeing others as our enemies to either be ignored, trampled upon, or eliminated, we are challenged by Daryl to get to know others, show them respect, and try to understand where they are coming from and why they believe what they believe. Pope Francis has taught beautifully that we are called to see each other not as enemies but as brothers and sisters. Imagine the kind of peace we could promote in society if showed this sort of respect and kindness towards our enemies instead of listening to all the divisive nonsense coming from the media. If Jesus could sit down and eat with tax collectors and sinners and if Daryl, a black man, could sit down and chat with a KKK leader, then how much good are all of us capable of doing with the grace of God we have received through confession and the Holy Eucharist? As it says in 1 John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
– Fr. Matthew Mary, MFVA