This is a post I originally wrote and published in August 2017, and it is one that I think bears repeating today. Racist incidents, white supremacy and white nationalist groups, have been on the rise of late, fueled by a racist president and religious groups who somehow think their god prefers pale-skinned people. Episodes of white police murdering unarmed Black people, for no reason, and getting away with it have become frequent events. It seems to me we are moving in the wrong direction, my friends. But one man is doing his part to try to bridge the racial divide, to help people understand that we are all the same, that skin colour does not make a person better or worse than any other. I have added a few things to the original post, including a Ted-x Talks video that I think you’ll find interesting.
This is the post that I originally wrote for this week’s Good People post, but then I had second thoughts. I had quite an internal debate with myself about whether or not this man actually fit the profile. In past posts to the category, I have highlighted people who gave of their time or money to help people in a more direct sort of way than this person is doing. I have also tried to avoid conflict, controversy and politics in my ‘good people’ posts. This is where my debate came into play. I nearly scuttled this post altogether, but it kept nagging at me, and an inner voice told me I needed to write it. Mr. Daryl Davis has not adopted special needs kids, he has not set up foundations to help feed the poor, he has not built homes for people in need. What he has done that qualifies him for the designation ‘good people’ is quite different than the norm, yet I find it timely, in light of recent events. So, I let my instincts lead the way, and while I have not included him in the ‘good people’ category, I definitely DO consider him to be a good people, and as such, I want to share with you what Mr. Davis has done and is doing. So, please allow me to introduce to you R&B and blues musician, author, actor and bandleader, Mr. Daryl Davis!
Daryl Davis is a talented blues pianist who has played with the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Percy Sledge and many others of Rock ‘n Roll, Jazz, Blues, and even Country music fame. While it isn’t his music that is the focus of this post, it was music that opened the door for what he has done. But first, let us go back just a bit to when Daryl was ten years old.
At age 10, Daryl joined a boy scout troop in Belmont, Massachusetts. He was the only black child in the troop, but that didn’t matter to the other kids, for they had not yet begun to see the world in terms of colour. One day, young Daryl was proudly carrying the flag, with his troop, in a statewide parade to commemorate the ride of Paul Revere when the crowd began throwing rocks and bottles at him. His first thought was that perhaps the crowd did not like boy scouts. But then he realized he was the only boy being targeted, and he soon found out that it was the colour of his skin that people did not like. This was Daryl’s introduction to racism, and it sparked a lifetime of curiosity about those attitudes, a curiosity that drove Daryl to do what he did, what he does. And what, you ask, does he do?
The headline for the article in NPR reads:
How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes
For the past 30 years, Davis, a black man, has spent time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. He says once the friendship blossoms, the Klansmen realize that their hate may be misguided. Since Davis started talking with these members, he says 200 Klansmen have given up their robes.
How did it start? I shall let Mr. Davis explain in his own words:
“I was playing music — it was my first time playing in this particular bar called the Silver Dollar Lounge and this white gentleman approached me and he says, “I really enjoy you all’s music.” I thanked him, shook his hand and he says, “You know this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” I was kind of surprised that he did not know the origin of that kind of music and I said, “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style?” He’s like, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “He learned it from the same place I did. Black, blues, and boogie-woogie piano players.” That’s what that rockabilly, rock ‘n roll style came from.” He said, “Oh, no! Jerry Lee invented that. I ain’t ever heard no black man except for you play like that.” So I’m thinking this guy has never heard Fats Domino or Little Richard and then he says, “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man?”
Well, now I’m getting curious. I’m trying to figure out, now how is it that in my 25 years on the face of this earth that I have sat down, literally, with thousands of white people, had a beverage, a meal, a conversation or anybody else, and this guy is 15 to 20 years older than me and he’s never sat down with a black guy before and had a drink. I said, “How is that? Why?” At first, he didn’t answer me and he had a friend sitting next to him and he elbowed him and said, “Tell him, tell him, tell him,” and he finally said, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
I just burst out laughing because I really did not believe him. I thought he was pulling my leg. As I was laughing, he pulled out his wallet, flipped through his credit cards and pictures and produced his Klan card and handed it to me. Immediately, I stopped laughing. I recognized the logo on there, the Klan symbol and I realized this was for real, this guy wasn’t joking. And now I’m wondering, why am I sitting by a Klansman?
But he was very friendly, it was the music that brought us together. He wanted me to call him and let him know anytime I was to return to this bar with this band. The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted. So what do you do when you plant a seed? You nourish it. That was the impetus for me to write a book. I decided to go around the country and sit down with Klan leaders and Klan members to find out: How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”
That encounter happened in 1983, and since then Davis has made it his life’s mission to promote understanding, because as he says, “when two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting”. What he does may not seem like much to some, but in my mind, he is doing his part to change the attitudes of the bigots and haters, one person at a time, using words, music and intellect rather than rocks, bottles, guns and cars as weapons. Think about it for a minute … what if every one of us who believe people should not be judged by the colour of their skin were able to sit down with just one member of a white supremacist group and, through open, honest dialog, help that person to understand that we are all a part of the human race?
In 1998, Mr. Davis wrote a book, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan, where he recounts some of his experiences. For example, the time when one Klansman told Davis that “All black people have a gene in them that makes them violent.” Davis recalls …
- “After a time I said, ‘You know, it’s a fact that all white people have within them a gene that makes them serial killers. Name me three black serial killers.’ He could not do it. I said ‘you have the gene. It’s just latent.’ He said, ‘Well that’s stupid.’ I said, ‘It’s just as stupid as what you said to me.’ He was very quiet after that and I know it was sinking in.”
Before you say what I know you are thinking, no, I am not wearing rose-coloured glasses, am not a Pollyanna. I realize that the majority of bigots will not be swayed by conversation alone, but I DO think some will. Often hate and bigotry are based on a lack of understanding, a fear of that which is different. Mr. Davis has set out to show that people, all people, are really not so different when you get down to the basics. I DO applaud Mr. Davis for the courage to do what he has done, and continues to do. His approach is the very antithesis of what we see coming out of our own federal government and many of the evangelical churches today.
Mr. Davis was the guest speaker at a Ted-x Talk in 2018, and I’ve included the video here. Granted, it is a bit lengthy at just over 18 minutes, but I think it is well worth watching … at least please watch the first few minutes.
My initial reason for thinking of Daryl Davis as a good person doing good things still stands … he is doing his part to remove hate from our society, one person at a time. This is a man whose hand I would like to shake someday.
Jill, thanks for repeating this post. This is what courage looks like. Keith
You’re right, he is a good man. If he has caused 200 bigots to give up their ways then he’s 200 times better than me. Of course I an ideal world there would be no need for him to risk life and limb this way, but alas people like Trump are in the position of making sure it will never be an ideal world. Unfortunately, Evangelist churches can carry the same message and still call themselves Christian. Daryl should sit down with them too.
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Fear of the unknown. It not only causes racism, it also causes religion. Think about it. The state of death is unknowable, despite the fact we are all going to die. Death is not something to be feared, but something to be accepted, the most normal progression of life there can ever be. Fear it not, and you will not need to be comforted in advance.
Daryl Davis makes a great impression by communicating with those who think they are his enemies. We cannot really communicate with those who are already dead, but think about it: no one has ever come back from death to warn us not to die…
I doubt anyone ever will.
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