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The African American Folklorist: Daryl Davis On Interviewing the Klu Klux Klan

Daryl Davis

Darrell Davis, a musician, author, and race relations expert was assaulted with flying bottles during a Cub Scout parade in 1968 when he was 10.


This was his first experience with racism. He spent years studying and researching to answer the question he had about racial hatred.


It would be a chance encounter later in life that would birth a dangerously intriguing project, documenting his search for the answers.


In the early 1980's, after joining a country band,  Davis performed at the Silver Dollar Lounge, known for only serving whites.


One night, Davis was approached by a man in awe of his performance.


“He says, I've seen this here band before, but I have never seen. Where you come from and I explained to him, “why yeah, the band has played here before but this is my first time. I just joined the band. Man, I show like your piano plan. This is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.”


This initial conversation would lead to Davis joining his new fan at the table for drinks.


“And he says, you know, this is the first time I ever sat down with a black man and had a drink.”


At first, Davis didn't believe what he heard. So he asked the man, “How was that possible?”


“He said, I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I burst out laughing at this guy. And while I'm laughing, he goes inside his pocket, pulls out his wallet, and hands me his Klan membership card.”


Credit Daryl Davis
Davis with a Klu Klux Klan member in Maryland

For the remainder of that year, Davis would call the card-carrying Klansmen every six weeks when he and the band played the lounge.


The Klansmen would even bring his fellow Klan members to see Davis play. Eventually, Davis quits the band and loses contact. However, he would have an epiphany later in life.


“A long time later, it dawned on me, Daryl, you blew it.The answer to your question that's been plaguing you since the age of 10. How can you hate me when you don't even know me? It fell right into your lap. Because who better to ask that question to than someone who would go so far as to join an organization that practices hating people.”


So, he got back in touch with the old fan. Davis went to the Klansmen home and convinced him to share his contacts of high-level Grand Wizards.


This was the beginning of his in-person interviews with members of the Ku Klux Klan.


“We address the destruction, we address the hatred, we address the fear," Davis said.


"Forget those things! Yes, they are real, but those are byproducts, those are symptoms of the nucleus. Alright, we need to address the nucleus. What is causing those byproducts? Ignorance! All right, we need to address ignorance. If we cure ignorance, then there's nothing to fear because we only fear that which we are ignorant. So with nothing to fear, there's nothing to hate. When there’s nothing to hate. There's nothing to destroy.’”


There have been two books written by black authors on this topic.


However, those books detail how the author's escaped lynching while Davis sits down face to face with Klan members to finally answer his lifelong question about racial hatred.

Lamont Jack Pearley is an applied folklorist, ethnographer and African American traditional music historian and practitioner enrolled at WKU in the African American and Folk Studies programs. He is an African American Studies Ambassador with the African American Studies Department, hosts a weekly segment on WKU Public Radio called the African American Folklorist, and is the editor of the African American Folklorist Newspaper. He was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame as Great Blues Historian and TV/Radio Producer (2017) and Great Blues Artist (2018).
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