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FairfaxSpeaker: Constructive dialogue key to eradicating racism

Speaker: Constructive dialogue key to eradicating racism

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It likely would be a surreal occasion under any circumstance to be asked to serve as a stand-in for the father of the bride in a wedding ceremony between two members of the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan.

Doubly surreal, perhaps, for Daryl Davis, who is decidedly not of the caucasian persuasion.

But it was all in a day’s work – or, more appropriately, a 40-year journey – for Davis, a musician by profession who has made it his mission to seek out and, yes, befriend members of the Klan and similar organizations, with the hopes of creating social evolution through one-on-one interactions.

“People can change,” he said. “You have a lot to learn from them and they have a lot to learn from you. We need to be proactive rather than reactive.”

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Davis was the featured speaker at the McLean Community Center’s Jan. 16 tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Now 63, he detailed his efforts during almost two-thirds of his life to break bread, literally and figuratively, with those who seem to have hate instilled in their hearts.

“It’s so important not to shut people down, but have these discussions in a civil way,” he told the assembled crowd. “Expect to hear things you’re not going to like or agree with. Keep listening and have an open mind. A missed opportunity for dialogue is a missed opportunity for conflict resolution.”

Davis grew up in a Foreign Service family, spending many of his formative years overseas in diplomatic-school environments filled with youth from around the globe, so race was almost an afterthought.

He found out the hard way that, in the U.S. of the 1960s, racial division was a front-burner topic – finding himself pelted with debris while carrying the American flag as part of an otherwise all-white Cub Scout troop during a ceremony in the Boston suburbs.

After that incident, “my mom and dad sat me down, explained to me what racism was,” Davis said. “I had no idea. What they were telling me did not make sense. Why would people hate each other based on the color of your skin? Why can you hate me when you don’t know me? It baffled me.”

His first interaction with the Klan came after college (earning a music degree from Howard University) when Davis was playing in an otherwise all-white country-music band at a Maryland gig.

(Country music is close in form to the blues, Davis reminded the audience. “They are kissing cousins.”)

An audience member that night was amazed that he played piano like Jerry Lee Lewis; Davis tried, not very successfully, to convince the patron that Lewis traced his style from artists of varied races who had come before.

The Klansman gave Davis his phone number and told him to call any time the band was stopping at that venue so he could bring his friends. Davis did, and the Klan member was as good as his word.

That interaction also led Davis to begin thinking about interviewing Klan leaders – imperial wizards, grand dragons and the like – to discern the genesis of their belief systems.

“It really wasn’t courage; it was curiosity,” the Silver Spring resident said. “I wanted to try to understand this mentality. Who better to ask that question of?”

One thing led to another, and the budding friendship (of a sort) between Davis and Klan leader Roger Kelly caught the attention of Ted Turner-era CNN, which chronicled Davis’s attendance at one of the organization’s otherwise lily-white rallies.

“At least he respects me enough to sit down and listen to me, and I respect him enough to sit down and listen to him,” Kelly told the news organization. (Davis said Kelly later left the Klan.)

Some of those in white-supremacist organizations would give Davis their regalia; at the McLean event, he displayed a host of robes, hoods and other items, and hopes one day to open a museum chronicling “the good, the bad, the ugly and the shameful” that he has unearthed through the decades.

In his remarks, Davis intimated he has little use for modern cancel culture, as it doesn’t get to the root of the bigger problem.

“There’s a way to fix this, and we have been going about it the wrong way. Sitting around and blaming people does nothing – it goes around and around and around,” he said. “Conversation is what creates change. There is a cure for ignorance: education and exposure.”

Both Davis and some audience members suggested – perhaps aiming for a triumph of hope over experience – that the next generation of young, vibrant leadership would help turn the tide and move the country forward rather than back.

“Today’s politicians are sooooooo old,” one audience member remarked.
Some, though not all, of those in white-supremacist organizations befriended by Davis have altered their ways. Some are on the journey to doing so, he said. Others probably will never change.

But that does not mean Davis will write them out of his life.

“When you make friends with me, you’ve got a friend for life,” he said.

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