Daryl Davis was born in 1958. His dad was a U.S. State Department Foreign Service officer. As a result of his dad’s service, Daryl grew up living in various countries and was comfortable in a variety of cultures. When he returned to the U.S. at age 10, Daryl was the only African American in an otherwise all-white Cub Scout troop. His troop welcomed him, although those outside the troop were upset. Once, when he was carrying the flag for his troop in a local parade, Daryl was pelted with rocks and bottles by onlookers. Only a later conversation with his father helped him to understand what had provoked this attack.
Daryl became a blues musician. He performed with such legends as Chuck Berry, B. B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters and many other popular groups at the time.
Once, while playing at a bar, a white bar patron complimented him on his music: “This was the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” The patron didn’t realize that Jerry Lee Lewis learned to play from black musicians—what was then often called “race music.” Daryl and the white man had a drink together, talking about music. It was the first time the white man had ever talked to a black guy. The white man revealed that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The conversation continued and the white man asked Daryl to contact him whenever he was in the area.
This experience gave Daryl the idea of connecting his music to conversational threads that might improve race relations. Daryl would engage in conversations with Klan members. One conversation with the leader of the Klan in Maryland started out with a lot of tension. But gradually, Daryl and the Klan leader became friends. In fact, Daryl asked the Klan leader to be his daughter’s godfather.
Over time, Daryl was invited to Klan meetings. He was even asked to join the Klan. The head of a Klan spin-off even asked Daryl to give away the bride at his wedding. In many cases, Klan members disavowed their membership in the Klan after getting to know Daryl. When they left the Klan, they would give Daryl their robes. As of 2017, he reported that he’d received robes from some 200 Klansmen.
Daryl has summarized his lessons learned as: “Ignorance breeds fear. If you don’t keep that fear in check, that fear will breed hatred. If you don’t keep hatred in check, it will breed destruction.”
Daryl has used his music to connect threads of fear into a stronger fabric of understanding and mutual respect. Just imagine what one person can do to make a difference in one of the longest-standing challenges our country faces. How might each of us find our own conversational thread to overcome our fear and the fears of others?
Building and maintaining mutual understanding often requires real effort, but it is so much more productive and rewarding than lingering hatred. Fear of the unknown is often reduced by just finding one common thread that begins a journey of understanding. What might we do to find that one thread to weave a stronger fabric of understanding?
“I’m always thinking ‘how can I blend something?’ whether it’s musical instruments, voices, or the people around me.”–Daryl Davis
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.