Daryl Davis didn’t set out to befriend neo-nazis and white supremacists, but they had the answers he needed. Having traveled internationally as a child with his parents who were American diplomats, U.S. embassies abroad exposed him to cultural standards much different from those of a still-partially segregated America in the 1960s. At schools he attended in Nigeria, France, Germany, Russia, or Japan, segregated classrooms didn’t exist. But when he returned home, schools were “all black kids or black and white kids,” he says, depending on whether they were fully integrated or not.
A blues musician and speaker, Davis has been profiled dozens of times by newspapers and magazines nationwide. It’s not difficult to understand why he makes for such a fascinating subject. He’s been amassing a trove of hoods, flags, and other artifacts from former Klansmen he’s befriended over the course of decades in hopes of eventually opening a “Museum of the Klan." But it’s not just his collection of relics symbolic of centuries of racism that has captivated documentarians and journalists to his cause. His Zen-like patience for befriending white supremacists is mesmerizing.
“When I was age 10, I had an experience where people threw rock bottles at me during a Cub Scout parade, and I could not understand why I was getting targeted until my parents explained to me it was due to the color of my skin,” Davis tells Complex. “I'd never seen them before, never spoken to them. They just didn't like the color of my skin and I just did not, could not wrap my head around that.” That’s when he began reading. He collected everything he could find on black supremacy, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, Nazi Germany, American neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan. He was unable to unearth an explanation for what he was experiencing.
Who better to ask than someone who would join an organization like the Ku Klux Klan, he says. “I began seeking out leaders and members of the Klan. I went around the country to get these interviews. Some people would talk to me. Some would not talk to me. Others wanted to fight or whatever. That's how the journey began.”
That was decades ago. Today, Davis has been directly responsible for an estimated 30 to 40 members leaving the Klan, and can be indirectly credited with influencing the Klan departure of another 200 individuals. His book Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan will be re-released sometime in the spring, and he was the subject of Matthew Ornstein’s forthcoming documentary Accidental Courtesy, which will premiere on PBS on Feb. 13, 2017. Ornstein says his decision to tell Davis’ story happened nearly four years ago after reading a newspaper article about his extraordinary relationships with Klansmen.
“I wanted to know why—why he did it, what he got out of it, what the impetus was behind it,” Ornstein tells Complex by phone. “I was very curious. So, I reached out to Daryl—who did not immediately respond, but he did about a year after my first inquiry—and that began the process of making the film. I took a train down from New York to D.C. and he picked me up at the station. And as he was driving me to his house, he started telling me a lot of stories that would become the film. By the time we crossed the line to Maryland I had a feeling that there was a film to be made.”
And Davis hasn’t slowed his one-man mission to cure America of its hate complex. Even in the face of increased visibility for white supremacy and conscious bias regularly demonstrated by President Donald Trump, his administration, and his supporters, Davis has not been deterred. “Racism is a cancer,” he says. “Black people have been dealing with this ever since we landed on these shores in shackles and chains. If we've been doing it for that long, those of us who are impatient need to be a little more patient and keep on addressing those things, not ignoring it. White people need to do the same thing. Don't turn a blind eye to it. Don't ignore it. Just address it.”
From members of the Black community to neo-nazis and white supremacists, Davis exercises the same level of measured curiosity in attempting to better understand how people’s worldviews are molded. Racism and Klan recruitment is more insidious than you might assume, he says. “The Klan will come into one of these depressed towns and hold a rally. They're looking for people. If you're out of work, the Blacks have the NAACP, the Jews have the Anti-Defamation League and nobody stands for the white man except the Ku Klux Klan. You can't even put food on your family's table, you can't put clothes on your kid's back because some [N-word]'s got your job. ‘Come join the Ku Klux Klan. We'll get your job back for you.’ These are people who were never racist.”
Of his experience documenting Davis’ conversations, Ornstein calls Davis a “tremendously patient man.” He adds, “A big realization for us in this process and this film was that a lot of the same factors that would lead someone in an inner city setting to join a gang are what lead people to groups like the Klan. It’s poor economic situations, bad home life, bad education. It’s very surprising and that sort of makes sense for why they would embrace these easy answers. Once they meet someone like Daryl and see the reality of everything that they’ve been taught about what to expect about black people is fiction, that is the crack in the dam that sometimes leads to them eventually change their whole way of thinking on it.”
Davis says he respects the fact that others have a right to voice their own concerns, even when those anxieties are rooted in hate. “When I respect that right and sit down and listen to them, they in turn reciprocate and sit down and listen to me. I'm not trying to convert them. I'm just setting an example and letting them make up their own minds.” Of course, he’s aware some individuals on both sides of the political aisle will spend the rest of their lives espousing hate rhetoric, he says. But if we don't set an example through discourse and education, “there's many people out there who will nourish that seed [of hate].”
When asked what he tells people who aren’t prepared to exercise the same patience with individuals who are outwardly hateful and potentially dangerous, Davis says, “I say to them, ‘You better grow some patience.’ Because you know what? Because you don't have the patience, these people are still here. They were formed in 1865. Not 1965. They're still here because you don't have the patience to sit down and have a conversation and educate one another.” In Trump’s America, there is much to be learned from Davis about political discourse and understanding bias.
“When one person changes, you change a generation,” he says. “That's what's happened.”