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OLNEY— Additional police or extra security won’t stop hate crimes in America, claimed Daryl Davis, a self-appointed activist who has befriended many Ku Klux Klansmen, enabling some of them to eventually hang up their robes.
Davis, a professional pianist who has performed with Chuck Berry and calls Jerry Lee Lewis a friend, told the 125 people gathered at Shaare Tefila synagogue on Sunday that fear of the unknown leads to hate. When people who think differently sit down together and really listen to each other, that fear and hate would abate, he said.
“I have not converted anyone. Yes, I am the impetus of over 200,000 men leaving the Klan. I just provided them with food for thought,” Davis, 60, said.
In one instance, Davis invited Maryland’s KKK Grand Dragon to a meeting, explaining he was writing a book. Roger Kelly came, unaware that Davis was an African American, but overcome his initial reservations and began to speak for Davis’ recordings.
Kelly espoused his views, claiming that black people had smaller brains, commit more crimes and abuse the welfare system more than their white counterparts, Davis recalled.
Through it all, Davis refused to get angry.
“You challenge them, but you don’t do it violently or rudely,” Davis said. “Make sure you have your facts together.”
Many meetings and rallies later, the two consider each other friends, and Davis now owns Kelly’s Klan robe and hood.
“Mr. Kelly quit the Ku Klux Klan. He no longer believes in that philosophy.”
Davis’ lifelong quest to understand bigotry and hatred began when he was 10 years old and had been pelted with rocks and bottle cans during a parade in Massachusetts where he was the only African-American cub scout.
“I formed this question. How can you hate me if you don’t even know me? For the next 50 years, I’ve been trying to answer this question.”
He found a way to channel his efforts as a student at Wootton High School when his “Problems of the 20th Century” teacher brought in Matt Koehl to speak about white supremacy.
There were only two African Americans in the class. Davis recalled that Koehl pointed to both of them and said, “We are going to ship you back to Africa, and all you Jews, we are going to ship you back to Israel.”
If they refused to go, Koehl said they would be exterminated in the race war, Davis recalled.
Several years later, Davis had graduated from Howard University. At the age of 24, he went to an American Nazi Party rally by the White House, where he saw Koehl amidst more than a dozen American Nazis.
Davis greeted him and was told that it would be in everyone’s best interest to keep all races separate.
It was a civil conversation, however, and the two men shook hands, Davis said.
He pointed to last year’s Unite the Right riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, which many people believe were held to keep a Confederate statue from being removed.
“That’s a lie,” Davis insisted. White supremacists chose Charlottesville specifically because it was an easy target, with less security and not as highly trained law officials as could be found in any big city.
“They were there to start the first steps of a race war. Charlottesville was like a testing ground,” he said.
Everyone should step up and engage in dialogue with their political opposites, he said, adding, Americans must decide where this country is headed.
That is why Davis vowed to continue speaking out and meeting one-on-one with those who hate him.
“Music is my profession. Race relations has become my obsession,” he said.