For the past three decades, Davis, an African-American blues musician who has played with such artists as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, has made a point of seeking out and talking with members of the KKK, even going so far as attending their rallies. At the heart of his quest, he told the Independent, is one question: "How can you hate me when you don't even know me?"
1866: A wood engraving depicting two members of the Ku Klux Klan. The white sheet and hood were supposed to represent the ghosts of Confederate soldiers risen from the dead to seek revenge. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Kayne Township. Ku Klux Klan Wedding In New Jersey. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Long Island, NY-Ku Klux Klan with hands raised in oath during night meeting.
20th March 1922: Members of the white supremacist movement, the Ku Klux Klan standing by an aeroplane, out of which they dropped publicity leaflets over Washington DC. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) 1/4/1923-Homestead, FL: Photo shows gathering of the Ku Klux Klan, members of the invisible empire, at Homestead, FL., thirty miles South of Miami, and within three miles of the Southern most point of the mainland of the United States. The Imperial Wizard of he Klan is somewhere in the group. But, he just won't make himself known.
Ku Klux Klan members hold a march in Washington, DC, on August 9, 1925.
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Ku Klux Klan Ritual At Atlanta In Usa During Thirties (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Over 100,000 people are expected in Washington for the Klan parade and gathering. Government buildings are all guarded in case of disorder. Photo shows members of the Women's K.K.K. of Virginia marching down Pennsylvania Ave.
5/07/98 PHOTOGRAPHER: Susan Biddle - TWP Wheaton, Md. BRIEF DESCRIPTION: Darryl Davis and his KKK collection Davis, a blues pianist, meets as many KKK guys as he can to find out why they are as they are. He has a collection of robes and other KKK items such as this medallion. (KU KLUX KLAN) (Photo by Susan Biddle/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
A young protester argues with Thom Robb during a Ku Klux Klan rally in Stephenville, Texas. Robb is the national director of the Arkansas-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. (Photo by ?? Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Don Black, wearing a suit and tie, with white-gowned Klan members in the background.
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Ku Klux Klan members supporting Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, San Francisco, California, as an African American man pushes signs back: 12 July 1964. Photographer: Warren K Leffler. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Parade of the Ku Klux Klan, in regalia and carrying the stars and stripes, through counties of Virginia bordering on the District of Columbia, America, 1926. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Ku Klux Klan members march through downtown Houston under heavy police protection. (Photo by Greg Smith/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) The Ku Klux Klan failed to make good its threat to parade through the streets of this town today and instead had a small parade in Neptune City and Neptune Township. Less than 3,000 men, women, and children marched in the parade, headed by Arthur H. Bell, Grand Dragon of the Realm of New Jersey. Some of the Klansmen were robed and masked, others wore their robes with hoods lifted. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
Members of the Ku Klux Klan attend a demonstration in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. They are protesting against the Martin Luther King holiday. (Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Demonstration of the Ku Klux Klan (Photo by F. Carter Smith/Sygma via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 23: Jeffery Berry, national imperial wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (l.), Grand Dragon James Sheehy (nursing his would after being attacked), and other Klan members hold a rally at Foley Square near the New York State Supreme Court House. (Photo by Budd Williams/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
VALLEY FORGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 25: A Ku Klux Klan member shows off his tattoo during an American Nazi party member during American Nazi Party rally at Valley Forge National Park September 25, 2004 in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of American Nazis from around the country were expected to attend. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
SHARPSBURG, MD - SEPTEMBER 07: Members of the Confederate White Knights hold a flag during a rally at the Antietam National Battlefield September 7, 2013 near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Rosedale, Maryland Ku Klux Klan group held the rally to protest against the administration of President Barack Obama and the U.S. immigration policies. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 18: Ku Klux Klan members take part in a Klan demonstration at the state house building on July 18, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. The KKK protested the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house grounds, as law enforcement tried to prevent violence between the opposing groups. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Demostrators take part in a protest against asylum seekers brought to stay at a former army barracks in the Hennala district in Lahti late September 24, 2015. Demonstrators threw stones and launched fireworks at a bus full of asylum seekers arriving at a reception centre in Lahti in southern Finland, late on Thursday, Finnish media reported on Friday. Between 30 and 40 demonstrators, one in a white robe like those worn by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the United States, waved the Finnish flag and shouted abuse at the bus. Picture taken September 24, 2015. REUTERS/Heikki Ahonen/Lehtikuva ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. FINLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN FINLAND.
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As a result of his lifelong fascination with racism and its motivations, Davis has befriended a number of Klansmen, including Imperial Wizard Roger Kelly and former Maryland Grand Dragon Bob White, who CNN reports is one of Davis's closest friends.
Davis' relationships with KKK members and the effect he's had on them is the subject of a new documentary, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America, which is now in limited release and will be available on demand and broadcast on PBS in early 2017.
In addition to the friendships he's forged, Davis' efforts have also changed minds, with a number of KKK members deciding to quit the group as a result of their interactions with Davis. (The Daily Beast counted 25 converted Klansmen.)
Davis even takes credit for ending the KKK chapter in his local area of Maryland. "The three Klan leaders here in Maryland, Roger Kelly, Robert White, and Chester Doles — I became friends with each one of them — when the three Klan leaders left the Klan and became friends of mine, that ended the Ku Klux Klan in the state of Maryland," Davis said on the Love + Radio podcast. "Today there is no more Ku Klux Klan in the state. They've tried to revive it every now and then but it immediately falls apart. Groups from neighboring states might come in and hold a rally ... but it's never taken off."
Converting KKK members, Davis says, has never been his ultimate goal, however. "I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated," Davis told the Daily Mail. "They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them. I am often the impetus for coming to that conclusion and I'm very happy that some positivity has come out of my meetings and friendships with them."
Davis further explained the logic behind his efforts on the Love + Radio podcast, as transcribed by the Atlantic:
The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me, I've heard things so extreme at these rallies they'll cut you to the bone.
Give them a platform.
You challenge them. But you don't challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.
Of course, many fellow black Americans and advocates for racial equality don't see Davis' efforts in the same light. Davis reports he's been called "Uncle Tom" and an "Oreo" and, according to the Atlantic, had one NAACP leader tell him, "We've worked hard to get 10 steps forward. Here you are sitting down with the enemy having dinner, you're putting us 20 steps back."
Still, Davis isn't swayed. Per the Atlantic, Davis said in response, "I pull out my robes and hoods and say, 'Look, this is what I've done to put a dent in racism. I've got robes and hoods hanging in my closet by people who've given up that belief because of my conversations sitting down to dinner. They gave it up. How many robes and hoods have you collected?' And then they shut up."
But some activists aren't so quick to accept Davis' methods. The documentary, the Daily Beast reported, includes an exchange between Davis and Black Lives Matter activists that, Davis said in a post-screening discussion, "almost erupted in fisticuffs."
"What does that do for people?" BLM activist Kwame Rose asks Davis about his KKK efforts in the film. "Infiltrating the Klan ain't freeing your people. Befriending a white person who doesn't have to go through the struggles of you, me ... that's not an accomplishment. That's a new friend. That's somebody you can call."
KKK members leave clan after befriending black musician: Daryl Davis talks to Al Jazeera about how his efforts to reach out to white… pic.twitter.com/wiLcty6lXq
"Just like the young man said to you," community organizer JC Faulk later tells Davis in the documentary regarding Rose's remarks. "You could have done a whole lot more work in the black community from the '90s to now to move our people forward rather than coming in here trying to uplift somebody because you got a hood off of their head."