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Under Their Skin Musician turned author Daryl Davis offers a simple but radical path to curing racism: breaking bread with the Ku Klux Klan


Inside the modest Silver Spring home Daryl Davis shares with his two cats, Spanky and Miss Ann, the walls speak of passions and paradox.

Davis is a 39-year-old black boogie-woogie pianist with a five-piece band that plays 200 gigs a year. Photos from his music career crowd one wall, pictures of Davis with musical heroes like Muddy Waters and Little Richard.

On another wall, a visitor finds a shrine of sorts to Linda Evans, the night-time soap goddess of the '80s.

The pictures of Davis jamming with celebrities such as Chuck Berry and Bill Clinton have a definite pop culture cachet. Davis posing with Linda Evans? Well, to each his own.

But how to explain these other pictures and mementos around the house? Like the photo of Davis standing beside Grand Dragon Roger Kelly of the Maryland Ku Klux Klan, the two of them looking as if they'd just been snapped at a cocktail party? Or the handmade refrigerator magnet shaped like a Klansman holding an American flag? Or the 100 or so other pieces of Klan memorabilia Davis owns?

Daryl Davis offers a simple answer. He is tired of racism, he says. So tired that he is trying to change the world -- one reformed Klansman at a time.

"We're going into the year 2000," Davis explains. "We need to move on from this."

So, over the past several years, Davis has sought out leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. He has talked with them, dined with them, even befriended some. He's become a self-appointed, if highly unorthodox, ambassador for racial healing.

"I'm completely aware of what those organizations have done to people of my race," says Davis, who keeps a "KKK Member in Good Standing" medallion in his wallet for good luck. "But I try to extend my hand in friendship. What I try to do is find common ground."


Strangely enough, Davis says, he found just that in the splintered world of Maryland's Ku Klux Klan, home of the Imperial Nighthawk, the King Kleagle and the Exalted Cyclops. He's written about it in a book released this month: "KLAN-DESTINE Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan" (New Horizons Press, $23.95).

Throughout the book's 315 pages, the Klansmen Davis has met speak at length. Their virulent homophobia and worries over integration, miscegenation and the Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG) spill off the page. Sometimes Davis challenges them; sometimes he just listens. He didn't want to fight the Klansmen, he says. He wanted to understand them.

"People say, 'Why do you give the Klan publicity? They seek that kind of stuff. Why don't you just ignore them and they'll go away?'

"No," Davis answers. "Racism is a cancer. You cannot ignore it and it'll go away. If you ignore cancer, it simply metastasizes and consumes the whole body."

Following that philosophy, Davis figured the best way to approach the Klan was with an open mind. He would attempt to challenge their stereotypes, maybe become a man in their eyes, albeit still a black man. To some degree, at least, his approach seems to have worked.

Bob White, a retired Maryland Grand Dragon and current Grand Giant, says he's "proud to be a friend of Daryl Davis."

"Many Klansmen have black friends," says White. "They just don't have nigger friends."

Epithets aside, Davis seems to be redefining the meaning of friendship with men like White. He insists his friendships with the Klansmen he has come to know are true. When Grand Klaliff Chester Doles was imprisoned for beating a black man, Davis sent money to help feed his newborn child.

"Why should that baby suffer because of what her father had done?" asks Davis. "And, of course, Chester turned out to be very appreciative of that. And he had to admit that it was a black man who helped put food on the table to feed his child."

Formative years

To understand Davis' peculiar drive, look no further than his youth. He spent his formative years in Africa, where his father served in the U.S. Foreign Service.

"If I had not had that experience of dealing with people from different backgrounds, and I had been here all my life and experienced a lot of racism as a kid, I probably wouldn't go anywhere near the Klan," he says. "I'd probably share the same attitudes some of my friends have. Some of them think I'm crazy."

Not until he was 10 and living back in America did someone call Davis "nigger." That was the same year onlookers threw rocks at him as he marched with his Cub Scout troop in Belmont, Mass.; the same year so-called friends left him in the aftermath of the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

In high school, a pair of neo-Nazis spoke to his class and said their plan included sending all blacks back to Africa. Those who resisted would be killed. Years later, a gig in a Frederick bar ended in a fight with a Klansman.

Then in 1988, a run-in with Baltimore police over his car being towed ended with Davis and his white girlfriend under arrest for disorderly conduct. A judge found them not guilty, but the incident broke up an already strained relationship.

For Davis, the arrest and the rough treatment he received showed him he didn't have to go to the Deep South to study racism. All he had to do was look around his home state, and where better to start than with the rank and file of the Ku Klux Klan. The group had intrigued him for years. He wondered how they could hate him without even knowing him.

A friend helped him get in touch with Maryland Grand Dragon Roger Kelly. His business manager called to arrange a meeting at a Frederick County motel, never letting on that Davis was black. They arrived first, and waited.

"The Grand Nighthawk [Kelly's bodyguard] turned the corner, saw me and froze," says Davis. "And Roger bumped into his back, Keystone Cops style."

Once past the awkward start, the two talked for two hours, with Kelly telling the Klan's history and explaining the difference between white separatists and white supremacists. His bodyguard, dressed in camouflage clothing, stood at his side. Davis had come looking for a hate-filled ogre; instead, he says, he found an accommodating, hospitable man who agreed that not enough was being done to fight drugs.

"He was a decent human being -- minus his racial philosophy," says Davis, noting that Kelly believes in strict racial separation but never used the "N-word" in conversation.

To document their meeting, Davis had Kelly put on his Klansman's robe and pose for a photograph. It was an unsettling moment, he recalls. The robe symbolized the legacy of violence. It brought to mind night riders and murder. Davis remembers the anger boiling in his stomach.

"I had to keep myself in check. Like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa,' " he says. "I'd never sat in a room, five feet away from a Klansman putting on his damn robe. That's what freaked me out a little bit. But I wanted to see a Klansman."

Davis had gone to the meeting thinking he might write a magazine article about it. He left knowing the story couldn't be held to a few pages. So instead he pushed deeper, becoming a fixture in local Klan circles, where April 4 is celebrated as James Earl Ray Day.

At a cross-burning

At rallies where Klansmen marched counter-clockwise around burning 30-foot crosses they believe light the way for the white race, Davis was on hand. He must have been an odd sight, this burly, easy-going black man bearing witness. He also joined Kelly on a visit to a black family that had a cross burned on their lawn. Kelly was concerned, because the State Office for the Invisible Empire had not approved the burning.

Davis also used his musical skills to connect with the Klansmen, playing country-western to get on the good side of some, boogie-woogie for others. Many he played for heard his rocking piano style and thought of Jerry Lee Lewis.

"But I reminded them that Jerry Lee Lewis learned to play from old black boogie-woogie piano players," says Davis, who counts "The Killer" among his musician friends and has an answering machine message to the tune of "Great Balls of Fire." "He used to go across the tracks and listen to these guys play. He even says that himself. And [the Klansmen] will say, 'Oh, yeah?' "

In Davis' mind, even that little bit of information might start to change someone's mind.

"A dialogue has been established," he says. "And as long as we can do this, there is hope for different people who are diametrically opposed -- whether it's interviewing, sending each other Christmas cards or getting together and having dinner."

Too chummy for some

Davis and Grand Dragon Kelly became so close that Kelly named Davis his daughter's godfather. Davis responded by dedicating his book to the child.

That's all a bit too chummy for Bob White, the retired Grand Dragon and former Baltimore police officer.

"Daryl is a good man," says White. "I would do anything for him. But we also have to consider what society has to say."

Davis doesn't care what society says. He'd have a Klansman over for a barbecue, he says. He'd let the Invisible Empire adopt a stretch of highway to clean. Why not? Bring them into the social circle, he says. Maybe by joining the rest of us, their hate would dissipate, one man and woman at a time.

Despite his documented experiences, Davis' attitude ultimately seems hopelessly naive and utopian. An idea left over from the 1960s, when the Youngbloods sang, "Come on people now, smile on your brother," and Jackie DeShannon sang, "What the world needs now is love." But talk to the local Klavern? Aren't they too far gone?

Not for Davis. He can take you to his clothes closet, open the door and pull out two robes -- one white cotton, the other white satin -- given to him by Klansmen who have left the group since meeting him. They are his bottom-line answer to skeptics.

"What have you done to get any of these robes? That's my question," he says. "I've gotten the robes. I've gotten the certificates of membership that they've given me after leaving. What is your contribution to helping the race problem? This is mine."

The robes are unexpected trophies. Proof, it seems, that talking can change minds. Sure, millions remain with hate in their hearts. But Davis says he won't give in to any of them -- black, white, it doesn't matter. He believes in America. And he will offer brotherhood and friendship to the very people who would turn America into the white man's land if they could.

"People will say to me, 'You're selling out. You're crazy. You're a pawn,' " says Davis, sounding weary, yet still defiant. He's no fool. He knows the history.

"That's the whole reason why I sit down with them, because I do have a sense of history and am aware historically of what they have done," he says.

"But more importantly, I have a sense of the future."

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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