Daryl Davis engages large crowd at Symposium

Photograph by Arran Hashim

By Amelia Eichel

Acclaimed blues musician, Daryl Davis shared how he convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan members to give up their robes when he came to campus on Oct. 23 for the 21st annual Environmental Studies Symposium. He connected his strategy for communicating across extreme difference by sitting down and talking with your adversary to any issue having to do with the environment. Davis also answered questions regarding the debate about whether deplatforming is an effective way to deal with hate speech.

“Why is that Klan robe still here in the 21st century?” Davis asked the audience. “Why do they still think the way they think? It’s because we have ignored them for so long. We don’t engage with them … if they’re willing to sit down and talk, that is a step in the right direction. Fear is the greatest weapon known to man … why do these people still exist? Because they evoke fear. People don’t want to confront them. If you see someone in a robe and hood walking down the street, you cross over to the other side. We cannot let fear dictate who we are. If we see something that’s wrong in our society, if we see something that’s wrong in our environment, we must address it.”

The first KKK member that Davis engaged with was at a bar in Maryland in 1983; the man had just watched Davis perform on the piano and he approached him to talk about music. The man revealed to Davis that he was a member of the KKK, and Davis eventually took that as an opportunity: he convinced the man to connect him with the top KKK member in the state of Maryland, Grand Dragon Roger Kelly. Davis decided then that he would conduct a series of interviews with Klan members across the country and write a book about it.

“I don’t want to convert anybody, I just want to know,” Davis said. “Once I know what the problem is, then I can figure out a solution to address it.”

No black man had ever written a book for which they sought out KKK members and their perspectives.

Eventually Davis befriended the Grand Dragon. He invited Kelly to his gigs, to his house, introduced him to his friends and they would have dinner together. When Kelly was promoted to Imperial Wizard (the national leader of the KKK), he began to invite Davis over to his house and to Klan rallies.

Davis proceeded to show a CNN clip of a reporter interviewing Roger Kelly inside of Daryl Davis’s home.

Referring to Davis, Kelly said in the interview “We get to know one another, we do different things, you know. It hasn’t changed my view about the Klan, it’s pretty much cemented in my mind for years.” Later on in the video, there is a clip of Kelly giving a speech at a Klan rally in which he talks about Davis: “I believe in what he says and what he thinks that I stand for. A lot of times we don’t agree with everything, but at least he respects me to sit down and listen to me and I’ll respect him and sit down and listen to him.”

Davis reiterated that last Kelly quote and its importance.

“If you don’t take anything else home with you tonight, take that home with you. Apply it to your strategies about the environment or whatever. You’re going to have one perspective, somebody else is gonna have another perspective … Give your adversary a platform. Allow them to share their views … This is how we communicate. I see too much here in our country of people talking about each other or talking at each other or talking past each other. I prefer to sit down and talk with each other. Understand something: I did not agree with what Roger Kelly had to say during the time that I was interviewing him. However, I agree with his right to say it.”

After Davis published his book, he continued to hang out with Kelly.

“That caused that cement in his mind to get cracks in it because he began struggling with what I was telling him matching it up with what he believes,” Davis said. “It didn’t sit right and he began wondering and over time those cracks cracked the cement … Just some years ago, Roger Kelly quit the Ku Klux Klan.”

When he quit the Klan, Kelly disbanded his group. Over 200 members left the Klan because of Davis’s influence on Kelly, who gave his robe and hood to Davis.

Davis showed a video of the Imperial Wizard in Virginia firing a gun at the ground next to a black man in Virginia in 2017.

“What did I do?” said Davis. “I said ‘Look, we’ve got to talk. Because there is no reason to behave like this.”

Davis took that man and his fiancé to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Two weeks later, he’s getting married to that Klanswoman fiancée,” Davis continued. “We had developed a relationship. She asked me if I would give her away at the wedding, he wanted that as well. I said okay.”

Davis told many more stories of him befriending Klan members, many of whom eventually decided to quit the KKK, 40 of whom gave their robes to Davis.

“I think he has to be the most charismatic person on Earth,” Kaitlin Emmett ’22 said.

“Discussion can open things up between people,” Zeya Berger-Hilliard ’22 said. “I feel like you hear that all the time, but I never would have thought that people that I would assume to be so closed minded (KKK members) would change their mind. I guess (Davis) wouldn’t have made the same assumptions as I made.”

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