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The blues man vs. the Klan: Daryl Davis

American blues musician Daryl Davis has spent the last 35 years befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. Disruption Network Lab hosts Davis for their keynote introduction (Sep 6, 17:00 at Kunstquartier Bethanien) to their "Infiltration" conference.

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Daryl Davis in Accidental Courtesy.

Infiltrating hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan is no easy feat, but rather than infiltrate Daryl Davis tries to communicate. Davis communicates with Berlin at Disruption Network Lab on Friday, September 7.

A blues musician famous for his boogie-woogie style of playing, Daryl Davis has gigged with icons as diverse as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. But it is his other mission that has thrust him into the spotlight as one of the most unusual anti-racist activists around: befriending men who think he is racially inferior.

In his sixties, the last 35 years of his life has been driven by one simple question: How can you hate someone simply because of the colour of their skin? In order to answer that question, he has been befriending and engaging in dialogue with the enemy: members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Since the mid-1980s, he has helped 200 Klan members hang up their robes, which he collects and hopes to turn into a museum. Ahead of his talk at Berlin’s Disruption Network Lab, entitled “Infiltration: Challenging Supremacism”, this Friday, September 7 (5pm at Kunstquartier Bethanien), we caught up with Davis to discuss his journey, the limits of civility and why Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman isn’t particularly accurate…

What moment set you on your journey to become friends with members of the Ku Klux Klan?

I had a question in my mind: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” It was beyond my capability to understand that someone did not like me just because of the colour of my skin. I bought a lot of books on white supremacy, trying to understand that ideology: but none of them gave me an answer that was satisfactory.

One night I was playing in a bar and I met a member of the Klan. I sat with him and he bought me a drink. I don’t drink alcohol but I asked for a cranberry juice. He cheers me and he says: “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man.” He tells me he’s a member of the KKK. He would come back and see me play every time I played there. I kept thinking, why is this Klansman associating with me and why am I associating with him? Then it dawned on me: this was a gift. I’d been looking for an answer to that question for decades. And who better to ask than somebody who would join an organisation that has a history of hating people who do not look like them.

Were there any times you were scared for your life?

No, I was never scared. I’ve been in some situations where I’ve had to fight somebody, put them in jail, put them in the hospital, but that’s not every time. Some of them are just plain crazy. If they see you they’re gonna try to destroy you. There’s no talking. Others will sit down and talk. I’m not going to stand there and let myself be attacked. I’m a non-violent person, but that only goes so far with me [laughs]. But that’s only happened a few times, which I’m very happy to say. When you go into one of those situations, anything can happen. I’ve seen guns, I’ve seen knives, all that kind of stuff. But I go in armed – not with a firearm or an instrument, but with knowledge, because I know as much, if not more, about the KKK than they do. I know their secret handshake, I know the passwords, I know all the history. Even though they may hate me, they respect me for knowing about them. Then they become curious: how does a black man know our password, how does he know this, how does he know that? That helps me to protect myself.

How does music influence your mission?

Music is a unifier. Back in the day concert halls were segregated. There would be designated seating sections that would say “white people only” and “coloured people only”. If you and I were to go to a concert in the 1950s, you and I could not sit together. That was the law. But in the 1950s when Chuck Berry invented rock and roll, and he and others like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard started playing the new beat, white and black children couldn’t sit still. They were dancing together for the first time in history. So while great black people like Martin Luther King were having demonstrations and protests to bring white and black people together, Elvis, Chuck, Richard and Jerry Lee were achieving this with their music. The music that I play is what got that Klansman to come and talk to me.

In the documentary made about you, Accidental Courtesy, you interview Jeff Schoep, the leader of the National Socialist Movement, and he believes Elvis Presley invented rock and roll. How much of racism is pure ignorance or stupidity, and if you lay out the facts can you change someone’s mind very quickly?

It’s never very quick, but you must lay out the facts. And then you nurture those facts and people begin to struggle because they’ve been told certain things for so long it becomes their reality. A person’s perspective is their reality because that’s all they know. But now you have presented something else and you have the facts to substantiate it. We can argue an opinion all day long but you cannot argue a fact: two and two is four, 365 days a year. So, when you have the facts they may not concede to you right then and there in your presence, but when they go home they’re thinking about it and they’re struggling. They have to ask themselves a question: do I continue believing a lie or do I renounce my beliefs and accept the truth? Some will continue believing a lie, others will say: “He is right.”

Now Trump is in power, do you think that there may be a limit to this idea of civility and being kind of people who hate you?

Yes, absolutely. But I think that Donald Trump is one of the best things that happened to this country. I’m not saying that because I support his stupid speeches where he condones racism and violence and the sexual harassment of women. Yet because of him, women are coming together and blacks and whites are talking about race even more now because now it’s in our face. Most Americans don’t want to talk about race, they want to keep it in the closet. We should have had that conversation decades ago. If we did maybe we would not have the problems that we have today. That’s why I say I’ve always talked about it because I believe in facing our problems head-on.

Did you see Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman? What did you think?

I think it’s an excellent story. I commend Ron Stallworth highly, but don’t feel the movie did him justice. I think everybody should see the movie, but I was not impressed, especially with the acting. The person who played the role the best is the person [Topher Grace] who played the Klan leader. I never met David Duke himself, but I know a lot about him. I will meet him one day, when I have the time. That guy who played David Duke had it down, he was spot-on. The other guys were like cartoon characters. Very poor acting.

A joke about the film I saw is that a man infiltrates a white supremacist organisation to take on the KKK, the joke being that the police themselves are part of white supremacy in America…

This is a thing the movie did not portray accurately. There are police officers who are in Klan groups, both as undercover, and both as real Klansman. I know a cop. He was a bona fide Klansman on the Baltimore City Police Force. Back in the day a lot of cops were in the Klan. And today some still are. At that time, I guarantee you, it was a lot more secret what Ron Stallworth was doing. [In the film] it was almost like his whole department knew. That would never fly because some of those cops were in the Klan. For example, the racist cop in the film: if he’s that much of a racist, he probably has ties to the local Klan. So he would know that that undercover guy is a police officer. That’s one of his fellow cops.

What do you hope to achieve with Disruption Network Lab?

I hope to achieve two things. Firstly, I hope my experiences will inspire other people to take them home and apply them in their own situations. Because what I do can be universal. Maybe you don’t have the KKK, but my method of sitting down and talking with someone can be applied successfully. Number two: I want to come home with something new for me that I can apply to my country. I don’t have all the answers, but maybe I can get some more answers from the people attending this conference.

Here in Germany the national approach to some of its history is very brutal. They’re very open about the Second World War, for example. Do you think the USA could learn from that?

The United States can learn a lot from Germany. When I was a child and I was taught history in my class we did not discuss slavery. Even today it’s still not all there. But we studied the Holocaust because that was ugly in another country. In Germany they did not teach the Holocaust in history for a long time. But kids need to learn about it. Yes, it was ugly, yes, it’s a scar on our country, but it did happen. It is history. We need to be accountable for it and we need to teach it and make sure that it does not happen again. It’s same thing in [the USA]: we need to address slavery, we need to address racism, and yet we deny it.

Daryl Davis, KLAN-DESTINE RELATIONSHIPS: How & Why A Black Man Befriended White Supremacists,  Sep 7, 17:00 | Kunstquartier Bethanien, Kreuzberg

Disruption Lab presents Infiltration: Challenging Supremacism, Sep 7-8 | Kunstquartier Bethanien, Kreuzberg, see disruptionlab.org/infiltration for more details