Tonight on PBS: Accidental Courtesy — A Black Musician Befriends KKKers
Posted on February 13, 2017 at 9:14 am
Musician Daryl Davis is a black man who has spent years meeting and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. In some cases, the Klan members have decided to leave after getting to know him. One even asked Davis to be godfather to his son. When his new friends leave, Davis asks if he can have their robes and other artifacts. A new documentary, “Accidental Courtesy,” follows Davis across the country as he meets with current and former Klan members, as well as young black activists who question his unusual form of racial reconciliation. It airs tonight on PBS.
I heard Davis speak a few years ago at our son’s school, and was glad to get a chance to talk to him about his work. He explained that as the son of diplomats, he grew up in a world that was more racially and culturally mixed than America. “Whenever I was overseas as a child in the early 1950s, my class group contained kids from every embassy from all over the world. So, literally I was sitting in class with Japanese kids, French, German, Italian you name it. If they had embassy there, their kids and I were in the same school and that’s how I grew up from age three on except for when I would home come here to my home country. When I was overseas I was living 12 to 15 years ahead of my time because of that scenario in the classroom with all the different colors and religions and ethnicities, etc. Today you walk into a classroom here in the States you see that, that same scenario but you did not see it in the 1950s. So I was prepared for that, it was no shock to me. I’ve never experienced any kind of xenophobia because I was so exposed to different people from day one, whereas my peers back here, they had to catch up. As a kid you think that every little kid does the same thing you do because everybody in your class group does the same thing, so therefore you must have the same experience. What I did not realize that my experience was something that very few kids had in America. I would not realize that until I was really back home here in the States in class, say in History class or Geography class and we would be studying the Mona Lisa, or the Berlin wall or the Eiffel Tower. I remember all those things, I’ve seen and touched all those things but my peers back home here the closest they would ever get to these things would be the portrayal that they see in the textbooks. As a kid I thought all kids must do that so I didn’t notice anything different at the time but when I was a teenager, I began to appreciate more of what my parents had done for me and where they had taken me and what they have exposed me to because in retrospect I could see that my American peers other than the ones at the embassy did not have that experience. I had something that was invaluable.”
He says there is no one reason someone joins the Ku Klux Klan. “They come from all walks of life and their reasons are different. They come from different educational backgrounds. You have the third-grade dropout who pumps gas all his life at the gas station, you’ve got people who are private school educated, you even have people who are Presidents of United States. President Warren Harding was sworn into the Ku Klux Klan, Harry Truman had joined the Klan before he became President, he didn’t like it, he got out of it and then went on to be President, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a Klansman before he went on to the Supreme Court. Senator Robert Byrd who just died couple years ago was a Klansman back in the 1940s. So you have people from all walks of life. There are those who say, ‘You know my granddaddy was in the Klan and my daddy was in the Klan, John is in the Klan and my friends want to be in the Klan, it’s a family tradition.’ Other times it’s an environmental thing where you live in certain areas and you have to belong or you suffer consequences. So if you live in some rural area that is infested with that kind of thing your neighbor is in the Klan, the mechanic who works on your car is in the Klan, the guys around you are in the Klan. If you’re going to be doing business with those people you need to get a passport you need to get a bank loan or whatever, you best conform to the environment otherwise you will be an outsider. So it could be a family tradition, it could be environmental or maybe it could be so socioeconomic.”
The Klan member see themselves as a group along the lines of the NAACP or ADL, Davis told me. They say, “Nobody stands up for the white man except the Ku Klux Klan” and that is particularly compelling in economically depressed areas. “They say: ‘We will get you hooked up for a job. Come and join the Klan and we will get your job back for you.’ So people who were never racist to begin with began thinking, ‘You know they do have a point because these guys are going to come in and they are going to work at less than half the pay I was working, I get laid off and I can’t even feed my family or clothe my family, at least I could get my job. So yes, give me an application, I’ll sign up.’ And that’s pretty much the campaign that our current President ran up on which is why he was so supported by that type of person.”
Davis says despite all of that there is a lot of progress, and America is less racist than it as in the 1960s, though it continues to be a persistent and intractable problem. He continues to reach out, listening to Klan members. He provides them with history and data, but most important, though, is his presence, demonstrating his humanity, understanding, and lack of hostility or judgment.
He sees a clear connection between Klan terminology like “white supremacist” and more contemporary terms like “white separatist,” “white nationalist,” and “alt-right.” He hopes that people who see the documentary will “learn that this country, our society whether it’s our country at large or our society, the immediate environment in which we live, our neighborhood, our community, our town, whatever it is it is going to become one of two things, it’s either going to become what we sit back and let it become or it’s going to become what we make it when we get up off our butt and start shaping it. And the movie shows that people can talk, they may not always agree but at least they can talk and what’s really important is that people learn to talk with, the operative word, with each other.”