No one knows exactly what they’re supposed to do with their life. Indeed, sometimes one does not discover one’s true calling until much later in life. True, they may find their passions, may find the things that they love to do or are talented at: but one’s true calling is another matter entirely.
Daryl Davis played backup with some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians: Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, even Elvis Presley. But as much as music was his passion, his true calling was something even more meaningful…
Daryl was born in Chicago, Illinois. It was a time when all the great blues musicians from the Mississippi Delta had migrated North. The music of these men and women inspired him and from the first time he heard the guitars strumming, he knew he wanted to play music for a living. Daryl attended Howard University, where he performed with the Jazz Vocal Ensemble and the University Choir.
Daryl Davis was the son of a Department of State Foreign Service officer, and as such, he and his parents moved around often. They lived in many foreign countries, among them were the African nations. In his childhood, he became accustomed to the integration of those schools. Here, people of all nations, races, and cultures were schooled together, and Daryl saw nothing wrong with it…
When he finally returned to the United States at the tender age of 10, he discovered how terribly racist his home country truly was. This point was hammered home sometime later when he joined an all-white Cub Scout troop in Massachusetts. He was marching with his troop in a parade and carrying the flag, when suddenly spectators in the crowd began to throw rocks and bottles at the whole troop.
Why Hurt Us?
He couldn’t understand it. Why did people hate him for his skin color? He went home and discussed the situation with his father, but even afterwards, the hate vexed him. The incident and subsequent discussion led him to a lifelong curiosity about such attitudes and a desire to battle hatred every chance he could….
Over the next 20 some years, Daryl ended up befriending and playing for musical greats like Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. He even played with former president Bill Clinton. He got to do what he loved, but still the injustice of America’s persistent racism stuck in his craw: always in the back of his mind.
As he grew and joined the entertainment business, the elimination of racial hatred sort of fell to the wayside for a bit. It was there of course, but between traveling, gigs, and finding love, Daryl had to put it to the back of his mind. It wasn’t until sometime later that he would take the fight back up again and this time, he’d go right to the biggest hatemongers of all: the Ku Klux Klan…
Bridging the Gap
As it turned out, music would play an important part, some would say a massive role, helping Daryl bridge the gap in the racial divide. He recalled one encounter when he was playing music in a predominantly white area when a white man approached him after the show and put his arm around him saying, “This is the first time I’ve ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Daryl then enlightened the new fan as to the origin of Jerry Lee’s music. He told him that Jerry Lee had learned that style from black Boogie Woogie and blues piano players. At first, the man didn’t believe him, even after Daryl insisted Jerry Lee was a friend of his. Either way though, the gentleman was still fascinated with the idea that a black man could play like that. Daryl knew he was on to something…
Learning About Him
As it turned out, the man was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet despite this, he seemed curious about Daryl and wanted to talk to him, to learn more about him. Over time, the two became such good friends that he ended up leaving the KKK. That one fan would turn out to be the catalyst for what was about to be his life’s true calling.
Know Thy Enemy
In order to combat the KKK however, Daryl knew that he’d have to arm himself with the only thing he could possibly use: knowledge. He began to collect information on the Ku Klux Klan, he even purchased just about every book ever written on the topic. By the time he was done, he knew more about the Klan than most Klan members did…
Armed with Knowledge
“Knowledge, information, wit, and the way you disseminate these attributes can often prove to be a more disarming weapon against an enemy or some with whom your ideology is in conflict, than violence or lethal weapons.” explains Daryl Davis. His theory was that if you know someone very well, you could make a personal connection without any physical violence occurring in the interim.
It didn’t work for all Klan members mind you. Indeed, some of them are so repulsed by even the sight of a black person that their first instinct is to hurt them. Daryl’s belief is that all that hate stems from finding a way of proving one’s superiority over someone else. He believes that because they feel inferior, they need to find a way to elevate themselves by pushing others down. Finally, after many years at it, he was ready to meet one of the KKK’s highest members, a Grand Dragon named Roger Kelly of Maryland…
Daryl was, as ever, prepared for violence. After all, situations like these can become perilous when one confronts another person’s long-held and hateful belief system. He’s had incidents where he was threatened and even some where he had to physically fight people. Indeed there had been one or two rare cases where one of the men he met ended up in the hospital and the other in jail.
Push Past Hate
Luckily he could hold his own in a fight. “Fortunately, I won in both instances,” explains Daryl. “These things happen from time to time, but it is to be expected, because you are dealing with someone who hates you and wants to be violent just because of the color of your skin…” He hoped very much that the meeting with the Grand Dragon did not go that way…
Get to Know
Daryl has said unequivocally that he never intentionally set out to to convert anyone in the Klan. All he did was pose the question, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” In truth, it was a simple question and one that many members of the KKK simply can’t provide a logical answer to. Most of the time, they come to the conclusion that the organization’s hateful ideology is no longer for them.
In the end, Daryl was so successful in his meeting with Roger Kelly that the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Maryland is now non-existent. “It’s a wonderful thing when you see a light bulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting” exclaims Daryl. Those KKK members who do still remain, number approximately four…
Shock on Both Sides
It’s strange, but despite all of his incredible work in race relations, Daryl does receive some mixed reactions to making friendships with such hateful people. “There was surprise and shock on both sides (black and white), mostly from people who don’t know me, or who haven’t bothered to research me, read up on me, or hear my interviews or lectures.” he explains of the mixed interpretations.
All Over the US
Daryl began his campaign for understanding in the 1980s and today, the 58-year-old blues musician has more than lived up to his own expectations. Three decades later and Daryl Davis has convinced 200 racists to abandon the KKK, simply by making friends with them and helping them to understand others….
One of Daryl’s favorite quotes is from noted American Author Mark Twain. Twain, who abhorred both slavery and racism said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime”. It’s particularly apt in Daryl’s case.
He has even documented his incredible mission in his book entitled, “Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan”. The book, which culminates his many years reaching out to people who hated him, is the penultimate example of the strength of his choices and the power of friendship and understanding.