Black Musician, Former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, and Great Friends
The following is an excerpt from my book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care? I made some minor changes so that this post makes sense being out of the context of the book. Thanks to Daryl Davis for permitting me to share his words both in the book and in this post.
Why I, as a black man, attend KKK rallies is the title of Daryl Davis’ powerful TEDxNaperville video. A few years ago, I watched this video, and still today, I’m moved by Daryl’s eloquent words, curiosity, and courage.
Possibly because of my inexperience, I struggle to find the words to articulate my feelings about the unjust divisiveness and harm towards Americans just because of their appearance. Daryl, however, has organized his thoughts and expressed himself in a humbling way. The French say, le mot juste, which means using the right words at the right time. For me, Daryl’s words are timeless.
Daryl Davis’ talk begins with his relationship with Robert White and how they became “the best of friends.” What’s difficult to conceive is how different these friends are.
Davis is a professional musician, while White worked for the police department. When they met, White had just finished serving a second prison sentence for assault with the intent to murder two black men. Earlier, White served time for conspiring to bomb a Baltimore synagogue. White was the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Maryland.¹
Near the beginning of his talk, Davis describes his first experience with racism and shares his reaction:
It was inconceivable to me that someone who had never laid eyes on me, never spoke to me, knew absolutely nothing about me would want to inflict pain upon me for no other reason than this: the color of my skin…I don’t know why people felt that way, but I realized that there are some people who did…How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?
Davis grew up exploring why this hatred happens. He shares one profound explanation and rare insight:
Ignorance breeds fear. We fear those things we do not understand. If we do not keep that fear in check, that fear, in turn, will bread hatred…If we do not keep that hatred in check, that hatred, in turn, will breed destruction. We want to destroy those things that we hate. Why? Because they cause us to be afraid but guess what? They may have been harmless, and we were just ignorant.
As of July, Amazon lists Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility,² as the third bestselling book. It was number one, but the books by Mary L. Trump and John Bolton sit at number one and two.
In a Seattle Channel video,³ DiAngelo adds some clarity to why racial hatred occurs:
…if we don’t know our history, if we cannot trace the past into the present, we cannot explain current conditions in ways that are transformative rather than victim-blaming…these struggles are never separated from the present. At the same time, a piece of white fragility is that white people are not taught their history.
After hearing this, I realized that my history classes had a fundamental gap that failed to explain the American experience. What I learned in my all-white school was the white American, male, heterosexual, Christian history.
It wasn’t until this month that I learned about Black Wall Street and its history. I’m frustrated with my ignorance of American history and the secondary educational biases that limited my historical knowledge. Now that I’m aware of this gap, I’m trying to correct the omission.
I write this blog, not because of this omission, but because Daryl Davis offers a unique way of influencing to create substantial change. For Davis, respect is the key, and the following quotation describes his technique.
What resulted from using his technique, along with his showing respect, is this: White left the KKK. He gave Davis his KKK robe and police uniform. Davis describes his technique this way:
Take the time to sit down and talk with your adversaries. You will learn something, and they will learn something from you. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. They’re talking. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. So, keep the conversation going.
Davis notes that he’s a musician and not a psychologist or sociologist. He states, “If I can do that, anybody in here can do that.”
If you find his process to be uncomfortable like I do, then do what you can. From small acts of kindness to protesting or serving in government, we can make a difference. Doing so can help reduce and mitigate the factors that trigger the murder of unarmed black Americans.
As we learn to act, maybe we can risk stepping beyond our comfort zone and aspire to Davis’ approach. We can begin to construct the elements needed to develop a bond with those who are different from us — maybe even resulting in the best of friends. If so, we can realize what many consider impossible: the maturation of real inclusiveness and celebration of diversity without fear or feeling threatened. This is a path that builds character. This is leadership.
¹ In an email, Davis explained, “When I first met him, he was a Grand Dragon (State Leader), by the time we became great friends, he was an Imperial Wizard (National Leader). Now he is no longer in the Klan and doesn’t adhere to his former beliefs.”
² Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, https://www.amazon.com/White-Fragility-People-About-Racism/dp/0807047414 (accessed August 24, 2020).
³ Seattle Channel, Dr. Robin DiAngelo discusses ‘White Fragility’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45ey4jgoxeU (accessed August 24, 2020).
To learn more about leadership and to read this post in context, refer to my book available in an eBook edition (https://books2read.com/whattheheck) and a paperback edition (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08DG99Z6S).
About the author
Gary is a Leadership Author, Researcher, Consultant, and Podcast Guest. His latest book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?, is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook. You can learn more about Gary and his other books at https://www.garyadepaul.com.