Daryl Davis, 59, has made quite a few high profile friendships in his long career as a blues musician. The list includes names like Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Joe Frasier, and Dolly Parton. Among the distinguished names, however, one more stands out. That being Roger Kelly.
You might wonder who that is, and why he deserves a mention. Roger Kelly was a Grand Dragon of the Maryland Ku Klux Klan.
While it might be surprising to think that Davis, an African American, would befriend a member of America’s most famous racist organization, Kelly would not even be the first, nor would he be Davis’s last encounter with the Klan. Indeed, Davis would meet and befriend hundreds of Klan members throughout the years, and, by simply talking to them, convince them to abandon their racist ideology.
This mission started with a chance encounter one night in the 1980s. Davis just finished a set playing the piano as part of a country music band at a bar.
Not only was he the only African American member of his band, he was also the only African American person there. As he was leaving the stage that night, he was approached by a seemingly friendly patron.
“‘Ya know, I really liked ya’lls music,’ and I said, ‘thank you,’” Davis recounted.
According to Davis, the man had never heard an African American man play the piano like that. After striking up a conversation, the two wound up going back to the man’s table to have a few drinks.
“He clinks my glass and cheers me. And he says, ‘ya know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man,’” said Davis. “Now I’m thinking, ‘wow what’s going on here, this guy’s having a night of firsts.’”
“’Why is that?’” asked Davis. “[The man] stared at the table top, and didn’t answer me, and he had a friend sitting next him, and [his friend] goes ‘tell him, tell him.’ I said, ‘tell me.’ And finally, he says, ‘I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.’”
Despite the shocking revelation, Davis was not put off.
“Over time, he and I became good friends. He ended up leaving the KKK,” said Davis according to the Daily Mail.
Racism had been a foreign concept for Davis from an early age. His family worked for the American Foreign Service, which meant that throughout his childhood he traveled to many different places. This experience of foreign cultures was what shaped his perception of racism.
“When I would return home every two years, it baffled me as to why people judged others by their skin color,” said Davis according to the Daily Mail. “This was a very strange concept to me.”
Extraordinarily, Davis never sets out to “convert,” anyone. Instead, his crusade is motivated by a simply question, “how can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”
“If you spend 5 minutes, just 5 minutes, with your arch-enemy you will find you will have something in common with him, or her,” said Davis.
“And the more you find in common, and you build upon what you have in common, the things that you have in contrast, like skin color, begin to matter less and less.”
For Davis, his initial point of commonality with these people is usually music.
“Once when I was performing in a predominantly white venue, a white man approached me on my break and put his arm around me and exclaimed, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis,’” Davis told Daily Mail.
“I quickly enlightened him as to the origin of Jerry Lee’s music and told him that Jerry Lee had learned that style from black Boogie Woogie and blues piano players.”
Putting himself in such situations is not always safe.
“I had been told by someone who knew him very well, that Roger Kelly would kill me,” said Davis according to the Daily Mail. “I felt confident without any physical weapon that I would prevail.”
But Davis’s knowledge and unique approach to tackling racism has some extremely impressive results. According to Davis, the Maryland branch of the KKK is essentially defunct.
“I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated,” said Davis according to the Daily Mail. “They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them. I am often the impetus for coming to that conclusion and I’m very happy that some positivity has come out of my meetings and friendships with them.”