Photo Caption: Daryl Davis in a promotional photo from his website.
A man who managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan spoke at Ohio University Thursday evening about his experiences, as well as touting the power of communication to avoid conflict.
"Spend the time communicating. As long as you're talking to somebody, you're not fighting," declared Daryl Davis, the author of "Klan-Destine Relationships." Davis, an African American, spoke in OU's Baker Center Ballroom as part of Black History Month.
As an expert on race relations, Davis lectures at colleges across the country, sharing his experiences with the KKK and the importance of open, respectful dialogue. Though his discussion Thursday evening detailed his path to gaining access to the KKK, he also emphasized that his story was more about the power of communication.
Davis said his interest in race relations began as early as age 10, when he was attacked while marching in a parade with his Cub Scout troop. As the only black member of the troop, Davis recalled being hit with bottles and insults hurled by spectators.
"It made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever that someone who knew absolutely nothing about me would want to inflict pain on me for no other reason than this, the color of my skin," Davis said, gesturing toward the back of his hand. "I know that people weren't born thinking that way. It has to come from somewhere."
From then on, Davis told the audience at Baker Center, he researched as much as he could about discriminatory ideology, particularly racism. His first encounter with a member of the KKK, he said, came when he played piano with a country band in Frederick, Md. He recalled a man approaching him and praising his piano-playing, eventually revealing that he was a Klan member. The man returned to see Davis' band many times after that, according to Davis, and soon the two developed a friendship.
Eight years later, Davis said he decided he wanted to interview members of the KKK face-to-face so that he could pen a book on the subject.
"After all those years I still had that question in my head from the age of 10: Why do you hate me when you know nothing about me?" he said. "That question had never been answered from my youth."
In time, Davis was able to set up an interview with Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon for the Maryland KKK ("Grand Dragon" is the term for the KKK's official state officer). Davis said he had his secretary, Mary, a white woman, call Kelly to arrange the interview; she didn't reveal that Davis was black.
"I had no idea what this man was going to do once he saw me," Davis recalled.
After a successful interview, Kelly and Davis maintained constant contact and developed a mutual, respectful friendship, according to Davis. Though they differed on their racial opinions, Davis said that the two had more in common than not.
Over time, Davis said he gained entry to many KKK rallies, where he would listen and observe the activities. In a clip from a CNN newscast that was shown during Davis' lecture, Kelly declared his respect for Davis to a packed KKK rally.
"I did not respect what Roger Kelly had to say because I don't believe in supremacy or separatism. However, I respected his right to say it," Davis said.
He managed to interview numerous other Klansmen for his book, though not every interview went as smoothly as the initial meeting with Kelly. To combat hatred, Davis said he would approach the interviews equipped with an arsenal of knowledge.
"I knew as much, if not more, about the Klan than most Klan people I interviewed," Davis said. He advised that any person entering a debate should do the same.
Above all, Davis said his experiences with Klansmen taught him that open dialogue and education can be the most useful tools to reverse the status quo.
"For me, an ignorant person is someone who makes an incorrect decision or a wrong choice because he or she does not have the correct facts to make the right choice," he said. "Fortunately, there is a cure for ignorance. That cure is education."
Furthermore, Davis said he believes that fear is the root of discrimination.
"We fear those things we don't understand. If you don't keep that fear in check, that fear will breed hatred. We hate the things that frighten us. If we don't keep that hatred in check, that hatred will breed destruction," he said.
By providing his adversaries a platform to speak, Davis said he was able to plant the seeds of change. Because of this, he added, several of the Klansmen whom Davis befriended eventually quit and transformed their beliefs, including Kelly. Davis said that he will never stop talking about race relations or the KKK.
"There are certain things we can ignore and they go away… Racism, discrimination; these are not the middle-school bullies or the common cold. If you don't attack them or stop them in their tracks, they will spread," he said.