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

January 13, 1998|By M. DION THOMPSON | M. DION THOMPSON,SUN STAFF

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."

'Klan-destine'

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.

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