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What I Learned From Daryl Davis

March 19, 2018

Three days before the Richmond, Race & Reconciliation event, I got a call from a local reporter. She wanted to learn a bit more about how my congregation and the co-sponsoring congregation, Speaking Spirit Ministries, had decided to bring Daryl Davis to Richmond. I told her I was impressed by the documentary “Accidental Courtesy” that I had seen last year on PBS that featured his work. Her questions sounded a bit unfriendly as she probed further. “Do you consider what he is doing as reconciliation?” “Yes,” I replied, but I could tell from her tone that she did not agree with me.

Daryl Davis is a well known keyboardist who has played with some of the greatest–such as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. He decided he wanted to write a book about the KKK, and starting a few decades ago he began interviewing KKK leaders. The thing is, Daryl is black, and he wanted to know, “How can you hate me when you don’t know me?”

Those interviews ultimately led to many in-depth conversations in which he was able to establish trust and rapport with KKK leaders. Because he listened respectfully to them, genuinely wanting to understand their point of view, they also listened respectfully to him. And the shocking result is that a large number of KKK leaders subsequently left the Klan and gave their robes to Daryl.

Daryl’s message is fairly simple: what we don’t understand, we fear, and what we fear, we want to destroy. So the way to end the destructiveness of racism is to remove the ignorance that begins the chain of events.

I am amazed at the courage and poise Daryl brings into those conversations. He is clearly comfortable with himself, and out of his comfortableness, he can interact with ideological opponents without reactivity. In fact, he can become genuine friends with them–even when he hates what they think. What is most amazing is that those KKK leaders consider him a trusted friend, and they invite him regularly to talk.

I asked the reporter, “What do you think of Daryl Davis?” At first she didn’t want to say. I pressed: “Do you think what he is doing is reconciliation?” She answered, “No. I don’t see genuine change in the ideas of those KKK members. I don’t see restitution. I don’t see him changing the structural racism of our society.” I agreed with her that Daryl’s approach is not comprehensive. There are many aspects of racism that his conversations are not addressing. But I suggested that what he is doing is the right starting place: conversation. Until we can have mutually respectful conversation, we cannot change hearts and minds. Protests have their place, and changing laws and practices is necessary; but without transformational conversations through respectful relationships, we will not get racial healing and reconciliation.

On Saturday night, Daryl spoke a little bit about the events in Charlottesville last August that resulted in injuries and a death. He said that the real agenda of white supremacist groups is to stat a race war, and they were hoping their rally would provoke violence–which it did. From Daryl’s point of view, the counter-protesters were doing exactly what the white supremacists had wanted.

He also pointed out that white separatists and black separatists get along because, in a sense, they both want and believe the same thing–keep the races separate. Daryl, on the other hand, is committed to the continuing integration of our society.

Daryl has been accused by some members of the black community of selling out. Why is he making friends with the Klan? What good is he doing by being their friend and thereby giving Klan members legitimacy? In the documentary “Accidental Courtesy” his most difficult conversation is with Black Lives Matter leaders in Baltimore. At the end of their conversation, they refused to shake his hand and they told him to never come back to Baltimore. So it was with great relief that Daryl told us that recently those same leaders have come back to him and apologized. They now see the benefit of what he is doing, and they are working together with him.

I find it extremely odd that many of those leaving the Klan are giving their robes to Daryl. I find it even more odd that he gets invited to their events and is asked to speak. But he is clear that he disagrees with them, and he keeps the conversation going, and for that I am glad.


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