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Grammy Award winner discusses unusual experiences with Ku Klux Klan

<ryl Davis spoke on a topic familiar to regular convocation-goers last Friday—race. His presentation, though, had a different spin than previous ones. The author of “Klan-Destine Relationships,” Davis is a black man who dared to delve into the inner workings of the United States’ best-known white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). He used Friday’s convocation to describe his unusual and inspiring experiences.

To begin, Davis recalled the first time he realized the color of his skin meant more to some people than it did to him. After traveling around the world with his mother and Foreign Service Officer father, Davis’s family moved to Maryland in the mid-1960s, when he was ten years old. His friend invited him to join the Boy Scouts, and it was at a Boy Scout march in Boston—where Daryl was the only black scout—that he was attacked with rocks. As his mother helped his troop leader clean his wounds, she explained to Davis the prejudice he was going to have to face as a black boy.

Never fully understanding how people could “without having ever met [him], hate him for the color of [his] skin,” Davis developed an interest in racism, and especially in the KKK.

He had another interest on the side, though: playing piano in a bluegrass band. He is, after all, a Grammy Award winning R&B and jazz artist. After playing a show one night, a man approached Davis and told him he had “never seen a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis,” to which Davis responded, “Who do you think taught Jerry Lee how to play?”

The man didn’t believe Davis when he told him he had known Lewis since he was 13 years old, but regardless, he bought him a cranberry juice and they began to talk. The man eventually told Davis he’d never sat down and talked to a black man. When Davis asked him why, he blankly replied that he was a Klansman. Davis laughed until the man revealed his KKK card. Then, Davis said, “It was no longer a laughing matter.”

Klansman or not, the man enjoyed Davis’s music and told him to call him if he was ever in town again. The man brought other Klan friends “to see this black guy play piano,” and Davis’s two interests were on the path of convergence.

Davis fell out of contact with the man when he quit the bluegrass band, but after gathering nearly every book he could find on the KKK, Davis decided to write his own. Rather than base it on others’ research, though, he chose to go to the direct source. The first person he thought of was the man from his music shows.

He found the man’s address and drove to his home, only to find that he had quit the Klan. Though they had taken his robe, the man still had the mask, and he gave it to Davis as a token of tribute. It was the first in a long line of KKK memorabilia Davis would go on to collect.

The man then gave Davis the contact information of Roger Kelly, Imperial Wizard of the Invincible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and directed him to a bar that served as a hangout for the Klan. He left Davis with one warning: “Do not go to Roger Kelly’s house. He will kill you.”

After trying unsuccessfully to locate Kelly at the bar, Davis had his secretary arrange a meeting with him at a local hotel. She was careful not to mention that Davis was black.

Walking into Davis’s hotel room on the day of the interview, Kelly ran squarely into the back of his accompanying Imperial Guard, who, Davis said, had stopped in his tracks, suspecting an ambush upon seeing a black man in the room.

To Davis’s surprise, Kelly shook his hand and agreed to do the interview. The air was tense, however: every time Davis reached into his bag for a new tape or a pencil, the guard’s hand moved to the gun at his side.

The tension remained until Davis heard a strange noise and leapt from his chair in fear that—as the ex-Klansman had suggested—Kelly was indeed going to kill him. With both men expecting the worst, Davis’s secretary realized the noise was ice in a bucket beginning to melt, and everyone broke into laughter at their paranoia.

This was the start of a relationship that, despite Davis’ interviews with several other Klansmen, was not replicated. He kept in contact with Kelly, and the two began meeting for dinner, then going to one another’s homes, until eventually they developed a friendship in an unusual context—a member of the KKK befriending a black man.

They became so close that Davis would attend Kelly’s KKK rallies, where Kelly would tell crowds of his respect for Davis’s willingness to listen to their ideas. In a segment filmed at one of these rallies, CNN anchors deemed the men’s camaraderie solely “strange.” This “strange” relationship continued until Kelly eventually decided to quit the Klan.

Davis next told a similar story of conversion. Before beginning his book, a talk show called “Geraldo” had invited Davis to join them for an episode about white supremacist families. There, he encountered Klansman couple whose young teenage daughters planned to join the Klan as well. The family intrigued Davis, and he arranged to meet with them after the show.

Working on his book a few years later, Davis wanted to interview the mother of the family, and to get her to agree, he offered to take her and her daughters—now members of the Klan as well—to Chicago to visit her husband, who was in jail there for a hate crime. By the time the trip was over, the girls and their mother had decided to quit the Klan, and their father soon followed suit. Since they quit, Davis has witnessed one of the girls marry a black man and the mother give a speech about acceptance on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. He has all four of the family members’ Klan robes at his home.

He also has Roger Kelly’s robes. Holding the robes of the Imperial Wizard of the KKK in front of the crowd, Davis said, “Now that’s living the dream.”

In telling of his trek through the inner realms of the Ku Klux Klan, Davis stressed a message of tolerance and acceptance, but also one of freedom of speech and belief. He couldn’t simply end with this message, though, so he brought to life the original link between him and the Klan, playing a little boogie-woogie piano music. It ended to a standing ovation, both for Davis’s musical talent and his efforts in the realm of race.

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