Daryl Davis, a renowned black American blues musician, took the initiative to reach out to members of the Ku Klux Klan, the US white supremacist organisation, which has led to more than 200 leaving the group.
He has travelled across the country, sometimes with ex-KKK members, to give lectures aimed at curbing racism.
Davis has written a book on the KKK called Klan-Destine Relationships. And an award-winning documentary about his unique efforts to combat racial hatred – Accidental Courtesy – is set to be aired across the United States in February.
Hate acts have been on the rise in the US since president-elect Donald Trump, who made many statements against minority groups during the election campaign, saw a drastic rise in popularity last year.
Davis talked to Al Jazeera about his journey in confronting the KKK, and what Trump’s election means for the country.
|Daryl Davis, blues musician, author, and anti-racism activist|
Al Jazeera: What inspired you to reach out to the KKK?
Davis: My parents worked in the US foreign service so I was an American embassy brat. I spent a lot of my youth in the 1960s living overseas and when I attended schools abroad my classmates were from around the world.
At that time there was not that kind of diversity at home in the US. When I would come back to the US I would be in all-black schools or black-and-white newly integrated schools.
When I was overseas I felt like I was living 12 to 15 years ahead of my time, and when I came back home I did not understand why people had a problem with skin tone. It was the norm for me, but not my country.
One time I was attacked because of the colour of my skin. And that made me ask: How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? No one had been able to answer it.
So who better to ask that question than those who hate others who do not look like them?
I reached out to Klan members all over the country. Right here in the state of Maryland where I live, I would put out these questions, but was never set out to change anybody and never under the impression they could be.
I wanted to know why they made a judgment on my ability to learn and work … and why they assumed we all sold drugs, raped white women, or were on welfare.
Over a course of time, a number of them began shedding their racist ideologies and left the Klan.
I have changed a number of hearts and minds by having these conversations. They started to see me as a human being, as someone who wants the same as them.
If you sit with your worst enemy for five minutes, you will find out you have something in common and if for 10 minutes, you will discover more similarities.
If you build on those commonalties, the things you do not have in common matter less and friendship can be formed. Even if you disagree – and this has to do with all matters, whether it’s about abortion or whatever – when two enemies are talking, they are not fighting.
They may be yelling and screaming and beating their fist on the table to make their point, but at least they are not fighting. It is when the talking ceases, that the ground becomes fertile for violence and fighting. So, keep the conversation going.
The problem is that in the US media, people talk about each other or at each other but not with each other. People refuse to do that. Many will hide behind social media, but they will not sit and meet with the person.
Al Jazeera: How many KKK members left the group because of your efforts?
Davis: I know that I have directly been the impetus for up to 40 Klan members leaving and indirectly for about 200 others.
I continue to get emails from those who I don’t even know after they hear me speak or read my book.
The leader of the KKK’s Maryland branch and I became friends. After he and his top members quit, their group fell apart here.
No longer is there an organised racist organisation in Maryland.
Al Jazeera: What type of conversations would you have with them and what did you learn from that?
Davis: I would find out why they joined the Klan, what their goals were, and what their educational background was.
And what you find out is this that the common thread is hatred and ignorance. In terms of education and jobs, they are all over the board.
They come from all walks of life: high school and college dropouts, lawyers, and doctors. There were even presidents of the United States who were KKK members.
Al Jazeera: What do you think about Donald Trump’s impact on racism in the country?
Davis: I think Donald Trump is the best thing that happened to the country. He is not the best choice for the presidency.
But as a residual effect of the election all these racist people are coming out and making themselves known.
America is hypocritical because we deny racism exists. Now they can no longer deny it. Now we are seeing “KKK” spray painted on cars. Talks on racism have been taboo, but now more conversations about it are starting.
You cannot solve any problem unless you see it and then you can talk about it. This country did not want to address racism. Well, now they are seeing it and are obligated to address it.