Meet the Black Blues Musician Who Befriended the KKK

Daryl Davis, the subject of the controversial documentary ‘Accidental Courtesy,’ opens up about why he’s spent thirty-plus years getting chummy with members of the Ku Klux Klan.

03.18.16 7:57 AM ET

For decades, blues musician Daryl Davis has been raising eyebrows with his unconventional hobby: befriending and converting bigoted members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose white hoods he symbolically collects along the way.

“I try to bring out the humanity in people,” he told The Daily Beast following the SXSW premiere of Accidental Courtesy, a documentary about Davis and his unorthodox methods that sparked provocative Q&As at the festival. Sitting down to chat in Austin, Texas, flanked by director Matthew Ornstein and ex-KKK member Scott Shepherd, Davis smiled warmly. “We all are human beings at the end of the day.”

The film chronicles D.C. fixture Davis’s remarkable knack for winning over racists with friendship, and includes several scenes in which the Chicago-born bluesman boldly initiates sit-down conversations about race with some of America’s preeminent racists.

He even manages to find common ground with notorious racists like National Socialist Movement chairman Jeff Schoep, who appears in Accidental Courtesy advocating for white separatism before sharing a laugh and a handshake with the affable Davis over the origins of rock ‘n’ roll and peanut butter, of all things.

But Davis’s encounters with his fellow African-American activists in the film are far from harmonious. Accidental Courtesy briefly depicts Davis meeting with young Baltimore activists Kwame Rose and Tariq Touré, who abruptly walk off camera after a heated exchange with Davis, and veteran community organizer JC Faulk, who then admonishes Davis for his treatment of the two men.

In the snatches of conversation seen in the film, insults are lobbed. Tensions rise. Neither party cedes ground to the other side, despite the spirit of mutual understanding and discourse that marks these tentative summits Davis has been initiating for decades with active KKK leaders, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis.

Davis took the film’s premiere as an opportunity to launch further insults at activist and artist Rose, who was not present. “As the man said, he’s a 21-year-old dropout,” Davis told the audience, adding that the film did not include footage from the two-hour session in which he claims the Black Lives Matter activists came back after storming off during their interview, intent on fighting him.

When I spoke with him a few days later, Davis said he had no regrets over how his exchange with the BLM activists went down. He stood by public comments he made in which he called Rose “stupid”—as opposed to some white supremacists, who he described as merely “ignorant”—and went one step further in his assessment of Rose: “I consider him to be a racist.”

“I don’t consider myself to be a racist, but to me there’s not much difference between a black racist or a white racist,” he explained. “The bottom line is, this country’s getting smaller and smaller. We have to learn to get along. We don’t have to agree with everything, but we have to learn how to respect one another and work for the same common goal. Because the best way for us to be defeated is by dividing and conquering, and we are a very divided nation right now.”

Davis is no stranger to criticism from within the African-American community. He’s been getting it for years from folks on all sides put off by his unconventional work with the KKK. “When you join the Mafia you do not snitch, you do not sell out your own. You will be killed. That’s their code. The police have their own—it’s called the blue wall of silence,” Davis began. The Klan similarly turns on those who betray the group, and the black community is no different, he said.

“Kwame Rose feels that I sold out my own race. Not that he would kill me. He’s not the Mafia! But he feels that I’m a race traitor,” Davis said, recalling the full exchange they had that day. “I was called Uncle Tom by him. I was called Uncle Ruckus. I was called all kinds of names, and it kept escalating and got contentious on both sides.”

“They could not see any value to what I was doing, which is fine,” he added. “We all want the same thing, ultimately. But the only use for white people that he has is for those white people that would help him further his cause, or the black cause. I have use for everybody.”

“I’ve done all this research,” he continued with a smile. “I’ve been doing this since he was still in Baghdad—and by Baghdad, I mean in his father’s sperm sack.”

It’s easy to see the clash as a generational divide between the younger generation and Davis, 58, who spent part of his childhood abroad attending international schools as the son of a Foreign Service officer before graduating from Howard University.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work and assassination made a particularly indelible impression on his life. He had his first personal encounter with a white supremacist years later as a touring musician, when a Klan member at a gig struck up a conversation, impressed that Davis could play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.

Millennial activists like Rose and Toure, on the other hand, were born into a different world. They and their peers were galvanized by the immediacy of violent deaths like that of Freddie Gray in their own city. Where Davis seeks to change one racist mind at a time, the young activists of Black Lives Matter utilize social media to connect and amplify their message to millions. Rose in particular made his name in the Black Lives Matter movement when footage of him challenging Geraldo Rivera’s Baltimore coverage on national television went viral.

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Until that encounter Rose had never heard of Geraldo, he admitted to me the day after I met with Davis. Rose had heard reactions to the film’s premiere on Twitter and arrived in Austin during SXSW that week, hoping to participate in subsequent Q&As. I caught up with him a few hours after he finally saw the film for the first time.

“Overall, the conversation was portrayed accurately, and in a good light,” said Rose. He remembered things escalating quickly, “but I didn’t want to leave the conversation like that. I wanted to invoke and challenge his thought process about actually inspiring young people to create change, instead of re-invoking trauma and fear of white-hooded men.”

“I have cousins that were raised in the military, and even my parents aren’t as ‘woke’ as myself or my peers,” Rose offered. “I don’t think Daryl has internalized his blackness, how he fits into society as a black man fully, or what that means. I think how he tries to mask his blackness is by befriending white supremacists and getting them to adapt to this idea that we’re one human race.”

But turning dozens of Klansmen away from their hatemongering lifestyles isn’t enough, he said. “For me, a completely reformed former KKK member or white supremacist would be someone who not only apologizes for what they’ve done, but actively works toward repairing or providing reparations for the lives in the communities which they’ve affected—or for the thousands of people who have seen images of them in that white hood and the trauma that it’s invoked in so many young people.”

He calmly considered the ways in which Davis has described everything from his racial politics to his rejection of institutional education. “I’m not a black supremacist,” he said. “I don’t believe that the black race is better than any race. I don’t think we’ll ever have an independent black nation in this world. But there is nothing wrong with building independent black institutions that operate outside of the confines of white supremacy, that address the needs of black people in this country.”

Interview with controversial blues musician who befriends KKK members in documentary 'Accidental Courtesy'

Accidental Courtesy

Daryl Davis in 'Accidental Courtesy'

After that Geraldo video blew up online, Rose lost his job. He took to public speaking and advocacy work, traveling the country to encourage young people into social activism.

“We look at people like Kanye West, who is one of the most brilliant artistic masterminds of our time, and we challenge his craziness because he steps outside of the box,” said Rose. “Everything that I do, my advocacy, my activism, is to get people to think outside this box of thinking there is one clear path to success, to achieving the American dream. It’s all about individualism and being the best person that you are when you look in the mirror.”

Last week, a Baltimore court found Rose guilty of failing to obey an order from law enforcement for using a bullhorn while protesting the mistrial that failed to find Baltimore cop William Porter responsible for Freddie Gray’s death. The ACLU is helping him appeal that verdict.

Like Davis, Rose is quickly learning what it means to attract both positive and negative attention to his activist work. “The police have also taken my car, they’ve shown up to my house off-duty to threaten me,” said Rose. “But I don’t let that deter me. I’m more determined than ever. I hope to be the light. I hope to be the spark in people’s brains. I’m stepping into adulthood and realizing it’s not a utopia.”

Davis, meanwhile, says he can see where the Black Lives Matter movement’s sights are set as November’s presidential election quickly approaches, “but there are certain things you’ve got to do to get there. Being aggressive and running into political rallies like Hillary Clinton’s or even Trump’s… and trying to shut it down, is not the right way. You’re simply fueling their rage and enraging them rather than trying to bring them around to your side of the table.”

Davis has known a few racists in his day. Ask him about the 2016 election and he gives GOP frontrunner Donald Trump a pass, but fears that the Donald’s tack of playing to racists may become a strategy others replicate in future elections.

“I don’t believe that Donald Trump is a racist, per se,” said Davis. “But some of the things that he does, some of the rhetoric that he uses, attracts racists and that sets the tone. And of course, you are judged by the company you keep,” he said. “So while you may not be a racist, when you’ve got a bunch of racists out there in your audience… then it reflects upon you.”

“Am I going to vote for Trump? Absolutely not. I do not believe in his platform,” he chuckled. Neither does Dr. Ben Carson, whom he met years ago, impress him now that Carson’s set his eyes on political office.

“When I first met him I liked him a lot. He’s a brilliant man. A very impressive man,” said Davis. “But I met him again years later, a few months back. I was not impressed at all. He has no business in politics whatsoever. [It was his] arrogance. A lack of knowledge of what he’s talking about. He needs to stick to his medical practice. I thought he was very biased towards homosexuals and towards other people, and I just lost respect for his knowledge in those areas.”

Now that Accidental Courtesy has premiered at SXSW, the filmmakers are hoping a copy makes its way into the Oval Office, where President Obama might watch it.

And while they haven’t quite become friends—despite both appearing in person at SXSW to discuss the film—Davis and Rose may yet find their common ground.

“He accused me of not working to change the system, the system of white supremacy, the system that oppresses black people,” Davis said of Rose. “So my comeback to that is, look: The system didn’t disappear. It was created by white supremacists. It was created by men. So you have to change the minds of men. They’re the ones who have to change the system. You change those minds. That’s what I’m working on.”

Davis says he’d welcome Rose to sit down with him again to continue the discussion they began in Accidental Courtesy “so we each can learn from one another and figure out, okay, I may not be able to do everything you want me to do, but what can I do that I feel comfortable with to help you?”

Both men say that continued conversations in their own respective communities is key to lasting, meaningful change. Maybe greater understanding can yet be found the second time around. “It’s hard to come together [with other races],” Davis admitted, “when I can’t come together with my own.”