Meet Daryl Davis, the Black Blues Musician Who Befriended 200 Klan Members & Made Them See the Errors of Their Ways

Musi­cian Daryl Davis is a great, lum­ber­ing bear of a man with a very, very long fuse.

His dis­po­si­tion and his race are equal­ly crit­i­cal com­po­nents of his decades-long project—engaging, as a black man, with mem­bers of the KKK, the Nation­al Social­ist Move­ment, and oth­er groups espous­ing white suprema­cy.

Diplo­ma­cy seems to be the major les­son of his glo­be­trot­ting child­hood. His father was a State Depart­ment offi­cial, and wher­ev­er the fam­i­ly relo­cat­ed, Davis went to school with the chil­dren of oth­er for­eign ser­vice work­ers, what­ev­er their race. This hap­py, mul­ti­cul­tur­al expe­ri­ence left him unpre­pared for his return to his coun­try of ori­gin, when he was one of just two black pupils at his Bel­mont, Mass­a­chu­setts ele­men­tary school, and the only black Cub Scout in his troop.

When Belmont’s Cub Scouts were invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in a 1968 march to com­mem­o­rate Paul Revere’s ride, his troop lead­ers tapped the 10-year-old Davis to car­ry the flag, pro­vok­ing a furi­ous reac­tion from many white spec­ta­tors along the route.

His pri­or expe­ri­ence was such that he assumed their bile was direct­ed toward scout­ing, even after his par­ents sat him down to tell him the truth.

Now, as the sub­ject of Matt Ornstein’s doc­u­men­tary, Acci­den­tal Cour­tesy (watch it on Net­flix here), Davis mus­es that the unusu­al cir­cum­stances of his ear­ly child­hood equipped him to insti­gate and main­tain an open dia­logue with the ene­my. He lis­tens care­ful­ly to their opin­ions in the expec­ta­tion that they will return the cour­tesy. It’s a long game approach that Davis refus­es to play over social media or email. Only face-to-face.

Over time, his even-keeled man­ner has caused 200 card-car­ry­ing racists, accord­ing to NPR, to renounce their for­mer path, pre­sent­ing their cast-off hoods and robes to their new friend, Davis, as a rite of pas­sage.

One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing parts of the doc­u­men­tary is the tour of his klan memorabilia—patches, jew­el­ry, pock­et knives and belt buck­les. He is able to explain the col­ors, insignia and prove­nance of the robes as method­i­cal­ly as he dis­cuss­es musi­cal his­to­ry.

Pre­sum­ably, some of this knowl­edge was hand­ed down from the for­mer owners—one of whom vol­un­teers that Davis is far more knowl­edgable than he ever was about the ins and outs of klan hier­ar­chies.

Davis doesn’t wait for an out­spo­ken racist to renounce his beliefs before claim­ing him as a friend.

It’s fair­ly easy to feel clemen­cy toward those Davis has nudged toward a whole new set of val­ues, such as soft-spo­ken for­mer-Grand-Drag­on-turned-anti-racist activist, Scott Shep­herd, or Tina Puig, a moth­er of two who was tak­en aback by Davis’ offer of a ride to the far away fed­er­al pen­i­ten­tiary where her white suprema­cist hus­band was serv­ing a ten-year sen­tence.

It’s queasi­er to watch Davis pos­ing with a smile in front of Con­fed­er­ate flags at a klan ral­ly, or staunch­ly refrain­ing from com­ment as jacked up suprema­cists spew vile, provoca­tive remarks in his pres­ence.

Not every­one has—or wants to have—the stom­ach for this sort of work. The most heat­ed encounter in the film is the one between Davis and Bal­ti­more-based Black Lives Mat­ter activists Kwame Rose, Tariq Touré, and JC Faulk.

As direc­tor Orn­stein told PBS’ Inde­pen­dent Lens:

Daryl oper­ates under the prin­ci­ple that if you aren’t hear­ing view­points that are dis­taste­ful to you, that they are also not hear­ing yours. I think there’s wis­dom in that. We saw this last elec­tion cycle how not doing that end­ed in not only dis­as­ter for this coun­try, but a lot of infight­ing and yelling into echo cham­bers and news that serves to rein­force what you already believe. The eco­nom­ic argu­ments that Tariq and Kwame present in the film have a tremen­dous amount of valid­i­ty, but in no way does this dimin­ish the impor­tance of what some­one like Daryl does. If we all took the time to speak to even one or two peo­ple we dis­agree with and both real­ly hear them and be heard that alone would begin to make a dif­fer­ence.

You can watch Acci­den­tal Cour­tesy on Net­flix here. (If you don’t have a sub­scrip­tion, you could always sign up for a 30-day free tri­al.) We have also added an NPR pro­file of Davis above.

Below you can watch a fas­ci­nat­ing inter­view with Davis recent record­ed on the Jor­dan Har­bin­ger Show.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

How a Lib­er­al Arts Edu­ca­tion Helped Derek Black, the God­son of David Duke, Break with the White Nation­al­ist Move­ment

How Super­man Defeat­ed the KKK (in Real Life): Hear the World-Chang­ing 1946 Radio Dra­ma

Albert Ein­stein Called Racism “A Dis­ease of White Peo­ple” in His Lit­tle-Known Fight for Civ­il Rights

Noam Chom­sky Explains the Best Way for Ordi­nary Peo­ple to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunt­ing

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Her cur­rent project is The­ater of the Apes’ Sub-Adult Divi­sion’s pro­duc­tion of Ani­mal Farm, open­ing this week in New York City.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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