Daryl Davis has spent most his life trying to answer one question: “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?”
The 58-year-old African-American author, musician and actor from Silver Spring, has spent years studying, interacting and befriending white supremacists.
Since the presidential election of Donald Trump, who he said has energized white supremacists; Davis maintains the best way for people to confront racists is to talk with them face to face.
“The way I would challenge them is to invite them to the table,” he said. “Not shout at them but invite them to the table for a roundtable discussion.”
With the election of Trump, a new white supremacist movement known as the “alt-right” has garnered national attention.
Davis said the “alt-right” is not different from previous white supremacists movements such as the KKK and neo-Nazis. He said white supremacists frequently change their labels.
“The alt-right is not a new movement, it’s a new name for an old movement,” Davis said.
Davis said he has spoken to at least one “alt-right” figure: Jarred Taylor, the founder of American Renaissance, a white supremacist magazine.
Many figures on the “alt-right” have endorsed Trump for president, citing his stance on restricting immigration, banning foreign Muslims from visiting the country and his protectionist ideology on trade.
Although Trump said he does not want to “energize” people who consider themselves part of the “alt-right,” Davis said his rhetoric has given them a new found courage to publicly speak out.
“Everybody who can vote in the country who is a racist voted for Trump, but that does not mean everybody who voted for Trump is a racist,” Davis said.
Through his conversations with white supremacists, Davis has always come back to his original question:
“How can you hate me if you don’t know me?”
It is a question Davis has been asking himself since he was a sophomore at Wootton High School.
In 1974, Davis’ teacher invited Matt Koehl, one of the leading figures of the American Nazi Party, to speak in one of his classes.
Davis was among two African-American students in the class.
According to Davis, while Koehl preached, he pointed at him and said, “We’re going to ship you back to Africa,” he said.
When someone in the class asked what would happen if African-Americans refused to leave the country, Davis said Koehl replied they would be “wiped out” in a “race war.”
“That was the first time I heard the term ‘race war,’” Davis said. “I had no idea what was he was talking about.”
Davis began speaking with white supremacists in 1982, befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
In Davis’ Silver Spring home, he has about a dozen KKK robes and hoods as well as a vast collection of other white supremacists paraphernalia.
Perhaps unusual for an African-American who remembers segregation and Jim Crowe, Davis said those hoods he collects are from former Klansmen he befriended and who gave up their life in the Klan,
“The KKK is definitely an American creation. It is American as baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet… and you don’t burn our history,” Davis said.
Davis spent much of his childhood abroad, traveling the world, unexposed to groups like the Klan.
His father worked for the U.S. State Department, so his family would split time between living in the United States and abroad, switching countries every two years.
Davis spent time in 53 countries on six continents. He said his classes abroad were always multicultural, sharing schools with fellow kids of diplomats of all over the world.
Davis said there would always be a culture shock when he would return to the United States and his classes would either be segregated or newly integrated.
While many African-Americans were well-versed with the rhetoric of white supremacists in the 1960s and ‘70s, Davis said he was fascinated by how people could passionately hate people they did not know.
Trying to figure out why they hate him, Davis started to read white supremacists literature and acquired a library of books on the subject.
However, the books were not enough for Davis as they could not answer why anyone would hate him.
He eventually came to the conclusion he would have to meet these people face-to-face to ask them why they hate him.
Davis, who decided to write on the subject, started interviewing Klansman on their views.
Knowing many Klansmen would not meet with him or speak with him over the phone if they knew he was black, he asked his white female secretary set up the face-to-face interviews.
Davis would then travel to meet the Klansmen, either at a set-up neutral spot or at their homes, knowing they would be less likely to reject him face-to-face.
Davis would quiz them on their beliefs, trying to understand the core of what they believe but also sought to connect with them by finding things they had in common with one another.
“If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy you’ll find you have something in common. If you spend 10 minutes with that person you’ll find you have even more in common,” Davis said.
The interview lead to a book Davis published in 1998 called KLAN-DESTINE RELATIONSHIPS.
It also led to a friendship with several Klansmen, some of whom eventually turned in their robes to Davis and gave up their hate.
“I never set out to convert anybody,” Davis said.
Scott Shepherd is an ex-Klansman and friend of Davis.
For about 15 years, Shepherd was a member of the KKK until his arrest in 1990.
Shepherd said before his arrest, he started having doubts about the Klan’s ideology and went through rehab as part of his arrest.
While Shepherd is not one of the former members of the Klan Davis converted, Shepherd and Davis have become close friends sharing a line of working of educating people to not fall for the Klan’s ideology.
“Daryl and I have become real close, really like brothers,” Shepherd said.
Ironically, Shepherd said Davis has more credibility with the Klan than he does.
“They’d be more willing to listen to Daryl,” Shepherd said. “He hasn’t taken any kind of oath to preserve the white race.”
Shepherd had moved past his history with the Klan long before he had met Davis.
Davis, who was working on his documentary Accidental Curtsey: Daryl Davis Race & America, reached out to him for the film, knowing his former past in the KKK.
Recent incidents in the County, including white racist vandalism and harassment and across the country have brought new attention to white supremacy in America.
Recently Our Saviour Episcopal Church’s in Silver Spring was vandalized with the message “TRUMP NATION, WHITES ONLY” on it.