How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?

Published 9:45 pm Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Daryl Davis, keynote speaker at the Thermal Belt Friendship Council's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration held Saturday, Feb. 13 in Tryon. (photo by Leah Justice)

Daryl Davis, keynote speaker at the Thermal Belt Friendship Council’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration held Saturday, Feb. 13 in Tryon. (photo by Leah Justice)

MLK event draws crowd at TFAC Saturday

By Leah Justice

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Musician Daryl Davis hasn’t been able to find the answer to one question he’s been asking since he was 10 years old: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

Davis was the guest speaker at the Thermal Belt Friendship Council’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration held Saturday, Feb. 13 at the Tryon Fine Arts Center.

Walking the stage with no notes in hand, Davis told his story of interviewing and even making friends with Klu Klux Klan members to write a book from a black man’s perspective and in hopes of finding the answer to his question.

Davis said his growing up in a military family and his traveling as a musician has exposed him to many different cultures in 53 countries on six continents and 49 of 50 U.S. states.

But it wasn’t until 1968 when he was 10 years old living in Maryland that he ever heard the word “racism.”

He was a cub scout member while attending a school where he and one younger girl were the only black students. Davis said he was carrying the flag in a parade as a cub scout when he suddenly began getting hit by bottles, soda pop cans, rocks and debris from the street by four to six white spectators.

“My first inclination was, oh, those people don’t like the scouts,” Davis said. “That’s how naïve I was.”

He went home and heard from his parents for the first time about racism. He said his mom and dad had never lied to him, but on that day he thought they were lying because he couldn’t understand it.

“I couldn’t get my head around that someone who had never laid eyes on me, someone who knew absolutely nothing about me, someone who had never spoken to me before, would want to inflict pain upon me, for no other reason than this (pointing to his arm), the color of my skin,” Davis said. “It made absolutely no sense to me. And the kids on the sidewalk did not look any different to me than my classmates, my friends, or their families, who for the most part treated me fairly well.”

On April 4 that same year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

“And I remember it very well,” said Davis.

Davis said he remembers Boston and many other cities burning to the ground, calling recent riots like Furguson, Mo. “Mickey Mouse” compared to the ones following King’s assassination. That’s when he realized his parents had not lied.

“So I formed a question in my mind at the age of 10,” Davis said. “And that question I’m still asking today, 47 years later.”

At that point, Davis said he asked everyone and started reading books, particularly on the KKK, which had only been written by white men who had access to the group.

As an adult in 1983, Davis joined a country music band as the only black guy and he played at a truck stop in Maryland called The Silver Dollar Lounge. He said it was an all-white lounge, not because blacks weren’t allowed, but blacks did not go in there and that was a good choice.

It was there he met a man who told Davis that was the first time he had ever heard a black man play the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. Davis said he asked him instantly where he thought Jerry Lee Lewis learned to play. He said he told the man he knew Jerry Lee Lewis personally and they were friends and Lewis told Davis he learned his style from black musicians.

The man later told Davis he had never sat down with a black man because he was a member of the KKK.

“I laughed,” Davis said. “I’ve read every book on the Klu Klux Klan. In none of my books did it say a member wanted to put his arm around and have a drink with a black man.”

Then he handed Davis his KKK member card. The man gave Davis his number and asked him to call him next time the band played at the Silver Dollar Lounge so he could bring his buddies and Davis built a relationship until he quit the band.

Davis said years later it occurred to him that he had lost the opportunity to get the answer to his question. So he tracked down that Klansman, telling him he was going to write a book and wanted to know how to get in touch with Roger Kelly, who at the time was the state KKK leader, known as the Grand Dragon of Maryland.

Davis asked his secretary, who was white, to set up an interview with Kelly, with instructions for her not to tell Kelly that Davis is black. Davis said he knew the KKK’s mentality and Kelly would not think a white woman was working for a black man, especially a man writing a book.

The interview happened and Kelly came with his knight hawk, or body guard, dressed in military clothing and KKK emblems and a gun on his side. During the interview, Davis said Kelly let him know that he did not like him and that Davis was inferior to him. A little over an hour in the interview, they heard a strange noise and everyone jumped. Davis said he perceived it to be a threatening noise coming from Kelly.

“I could hear in the back of my head the man who gave me Kelly’s information saying, don’t mess with Roger Kelly. He will kill you,” Davis said. “I didn’t want to die that day.”

Davis hit the table with plans to take the men down and take the gun from the knight hawk. When he hit the table, he locked eyes with Kelly’s eyes and didn’t say a word. Both eyes were saying, “What did you just do?” Davis said.

Mary, the secretary realized that the ice in the ice bucket had melted and shifted causing the noise and they all began laughing, “at how ignorant we all were.”

“All because some foreign entity of which we were ignorant entered into our comfort zone we all became fearful of each other,” Davis said. “Ignorance breeds fear. If you do not keep that fear in check, that fear in turn will breed hatred. If you do not keep that hatred in check, that hatred will breed destruction.”

The conversation continued and Kelly wished Davis luck with the book and gave him his Klan card and asked him to keep in touch.

“I told Mary on the way home, I rather like Roger Kelly,” Davis said. “I don’t like what he stands for. We have more in common than we do in contrast. Most of what we had in contrast centered around how we each felt about race. He felt his race was superior to my race. I felt mine was equal to his. He felt the races had to be apart. I felt they could be together.”

Davis said he began calling Kelly and inviting him to his music performances. They would run errands together and eventually Kelly would come to Davis’ house, an hour and a half away, without his nighthawk.

This went on for years and eventually, Kelly became the Imperial Wizard, which is the national KKK leader. Davis even attended Klan rallies with Kelly.

Davis showed a video clip from 1994 done by CNN about the friendship. Davis said the reporters followed him two hours away to a Klan rally and asked if Davis thought Kelly would talk to them.

“I said, I’ll do better than that,” Davis said. “I’ll invite Kelly two hours away to my house and you can interview him at a black man’s house.”

During the interview Kelly said even though he and Davis did things together, it did not change his views on the Klan because the views had been cemented in his mind for years.

Kelly also said in 1994 he believed in separation of the races, but also said he respected Davis.

“The imperial wizard, the head of the Klu Klux Klan,” Davis said. “We may not agree on everything but he respected me to sit down and talk about things and I respected him.”

Davis said you have to give your opponent a platform and let them express their views. Challenge them politely, he said.

“I did not respect what Roger Kelly had to say,” Davis said. “However, I respected his right to say it.”

After Davis’ book was released, Davis and Kelly continued to get together. Over time, Kelly’s cement that held his ideas together began to crumble, Davis said, and eventually fell apart. Kelly quit the KKK and no longer believes what he said on the CNN video, Davis said.

As Davis pulled items out of a bag he brought, he said Kelly gave him his Klan robe and hood and Davis held them up displaying them to the audience. He also had a t-shirt from the KKK for James Earl Ray Day (how the KKK celebrate MLK day) that mocks one of King’s speeches by saying, “Our dream came true.”

“People ask me why I have this stuff,” said Davis. “I’m glad that I have it. My having it means the people who wore it no longer believe what it stands for. That means there is hope. People can change. I’m just a rock-n-roll piano player. If I can walk away with this stuff anyone can.”

Davis holding the Imperial Wizard of the KKK's robe. (photo by Leah Justice)

Davis holding the Imperial Wizard of the KKK’s robe. (photo by Leah Justice)

Davis said MLK is one of his heroes and he believes King had a dream, “but it’s us who can make that dream a reality.”

Davis ended the commemoration by giving a rockabilly performance on the piano most in the audience had never heard before live. Davis played on and off for 32 years with Charles Edward Anderson Berry, better known as Chuck Berry.

Davis’s book, Klandestine Relationships, will be re-released later this year with updates.

Saturday’s program also included The First Baptist Church of Tryon’s Children’s Choir and Poems by Della Jackson, read by Sandra Forney.

The First Baptist Church of Tryon Children's Choir performed. (photo by Leah Justice)

The First Baptist Church of Tryon Children’s Choir performed. (photo by Leah Justice)