There are two versions of Daryl Davis. On stage, he is an accomplished musician who has spent his career playing with legends like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, and Percy Sledge.
Offstage, Davis can be found at Ku Klux Klan rallies and white supremacy hangouts, where he attempts to answer the question “How can someone hate me, if they don’t even know me?” Davis has conducted countless interviews with members of radical organizations and has been gifted hundreds of robes from KKK members that have renounced their racist ideologies.
Monday, in a little theatre in American Fork, UT, Davis spent the evening with a group of young musicians, playing his favorite tunes and speaking on the necessity of dialogue to combat ignorance and hate.
He represents the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing civil rights and liberties for all Americans, and promoting a common culture based on fairness, understanding, and humanity.”
The 64-year-old Chicago native told the high school students and family members in the audience, “Musicians don’t care about your skin color, your religion, or who your daddy is. All we care about—can we make good music together?” The musicians on stage, ranging from 14 to 17 years old, had the honor of playing “Johnny B Goode” with Davis, who spent decades of his career performing the famous tune with Chuck Berry himself.
Davis rifled through a small bag on stage and pulled out a white robe. It was the robe of Roger Kelly, a former KKK Imperial Wizard. He displayed if for the audience, the thin cotton fabric unmistakably branded with the Klan’s blood drop cross insignia. The robe which held so much hate and fear, in Davis’ hands, became as harmless as a cheap pair of pajamas.
“I know what you’re all thinking,” he said. “Did I try it on?”
The students roared with laughter.
“Yeah, I tried it on. I stood in front of the mirror, looked stupid and took it off.”
Deseret News was able to speak with Davis before the event. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Do you think the conversations you’re having now would have been possible without your background as a musician, and the connections you’ve made through music?
Daryl Davis: Music definitely plays a big role. How I feel about myself is this—when I’m in my band, I am the bandleader. People do what I want them to do, because that’s what I pay them to do.
As a bandleader, my job on my bandstand is to foster harmony between the voices on that stage. When I step off the stage at the end of the day, and I’m out in society, I want harmony around me too. So that’s why I do this.
But what I think what I believe played a bigger role was my upbringing. I was very fortunate to travel and be impacted by that. If I would have been raised in my own country my whole life, would I be doing this with white supremacists? Maybe not.
DN: You grew up overseas, toured as a musician extensively and lived abroad—how have your travels informed your approach toward the conversations you’re known for?
Davis: My favorite quote of all time is by Mark Twain: “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.”
And that is so true. I’ve been to 61 countries on six continents and been exposed to a multitude of different cultures, religions, colors of skin, ethnicities, and ideologies. All of that has helped shape who I’d become, because I started early in my life, as you pointed out, when I traveled abroad with my parents, and now I’m doing it again, as an adult performer and lecturer.
So, seeing these different cultures, and learning how to interact with them has given me the ability to sit down with a culture such as white supremacy. I just view it as another culture, and I treat it like I would treat any other.
DN: For people who can’t get out and travel to six continents, how do you suggest making up for that?
Davis: You can still travel, I call it walking across the cafeteria. In colleges or the workplace, different people work together, they might even share the same cubicle. What happens at 12? Everyone goes downstairs to the cafeteria. Blacks sit with blacks, Hispanics sit with Hispanics, and Asians sit with Asians. They self-segregate.
Does that mean that they are racist? No, not necessarily. People tend to feel more comfortable around familiarity. But what I say is: once or twice a week, walk across the cafeteria, leave your comfort group at lunch, and sit at somebody else’s table. You have a lot to teach them, and you have a lot to learn from them. In the process, you’ll probably make a new friend.
DN: You have a lot of stories about sitting down with white supremacists, and it seems like your physical presence plays a pretty important part in that interaction. How do you have similarly productive conversations online, where you can’t be physically present?
Davis: No matter how different people may be, I always conclude that we all are human beings. And as such, everybody wants to be loved. People want to be respected, they want to be heard, they want to be treated fairly and truthfully. And they want the same things for their family, as we want for our families.
That’s what I do over the internet. If you don’t know me, and you’re meeting me for the first time over the internet, and you’re telling me I’m a lowlife, I’m a criminal, I’m on welfare or I’m not intelligent because I’m black—why should I get angry at you?
Is it offensive? Yes, it’s offensive, but I’m not offended. Why am I not offended? Because you don’t know me. When you sit back and just listen to them, they’re not used to that. People want to be heard, and because you have listened to them—they feel compelled to reciprocate and listen to you.
DN: You talk about your interviews with the extreme side of radicalism. But a lot of people listening to your lectures probably aren’t Klansmen. What have you learned in your conversations with the extreme end of radicalism, that could apply to people who have different political and religious beliefs?
Davis: Your brother voted for Trump and you voted for Biden. So you’re like, ‘I’m not going to Thanksgiving. My family’s screwed up, and I can’t even talk to them.’ I hear that kind of stuff all the time.
It is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. You’re going to throw away decades with your family, for some person who is only going to be around for a maximum of eight years?
If I can walk into a Klan rally with black skin, come out unscathed and end up making friends with those people—can’t you sit down and have dinner with your own brother or sister?