Rally banners. Belt buckles. Knives.
These are a few of the items 58-year-old Daryl Davis has collected from people when they left Ku Klux Klan groups. Gifting these mementos is how former Klan members thank the musician for becoming their friend.
With his collection of more than 40 KKK artifacts, Davis’ friendship is changing Klan members’ perceptions of black people.
“I have a bunch of them. This only one of many,” Davis says as he holds up the robe of Roger Kelly, the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK in Maryland.
For those who know the history behind the Klan garb, staring at this robe can be unsettling.
According to historian Wyn Craig Wade’s book “The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America,” six Confederate veterans from Pulaski, Tenn. formed the Klan as a social group in 1865. The men draped themselves in white sheets and wore pillowcases over their heads as they rode on horseback through the city by night.
It began as personal amusement. But once members noticed how their costumes provoked fear among people, especially freed black slaves, the idea became more formalized and widespread. Klan groups expanded across the South, and the KKK quickly transitioned from mischievous endeavor to deadly organization.
Despite its controversial history, Davis admits to having once tried on a KKK robe.
“I stood in front of the mirror and I felt very stupid. I looked very ridiculous, so I took it off,” Davis says. “That’s just a natural curiosity. Perhaps, if you had one, you might try it on too.”
Davis lightly laughs at his proposition, yet his face wears a look of tacit understanding. He doesn’t expect anyone to gravitate to an idea like this so easily. That’s why Davis applied for a 501(c)(3) — to open a place that fosters open communication for the purpose of understanding difficult histories. He plans to open a museum of the Klan; where history can be preserved, beliefs can be challenged and conversations can begin.
“As shameful as it is, this is a part of American history,” Davis says. “You don’t burn history.”
Davis remembers every item given to him, and the stories that are connected with them.
Davis shows Rare a white t-shirt bearing an image of Martin Luther King Jr. in which a target has been placed on the civil rights advocate’s forehead, mocking his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” He explains that Klan members wear this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and on April 4, the day of King’s assassination.
Violence from Klan groups was on a high during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Explosive dynamite became a defining weapon of Klan members and anyone who supported integration was susceptible to their destruction. In 1956, King’s very own home in Montgomery, Ala. was attacked, though no person or group has ever been prosecuted for the crime.
There are symbols of hate, Davis says. But there are also symbols of hope.
In the documentary “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America,” there is a pivotal scene when Frank Ancona, the Imperial Wizard of the Traditionalist
“Daryl had been interviewed by different media personalities,” Ancona says in the eye-opening documentary. “He actually came to the defense of the Traditionalist American Knights on a couple of things.”
Due to his exhaustive knowledge of the KKK, Davis is comfortable defending his Klan friends when he feels the media misjudges their specific beliefs. For example, it is often misstated that the KKK is a centralized organization when in actuality there are many different Klan groups across the United States. Though the different Klan groups may adhere to some of the same bylaws, costumes and traditions, their ideologies vary slightly, which is why they act autonomously.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that of the 917 hate groups in the U.S., 130 of them are active KKK groups. Based on the numbers from 2016, KKK groups make up the second-largest hate group behind black separatists with 193.
“Now, if you see the different Klan groups in public together, they will hold a united front,” Davis explains. “But behind closed doors they are rivals.”
Davis doesn’t agree with every KKK group’s ideologies, but he says it’s important to understand the Klan’s history and its evolution. Understanding can’t begin to happen, Davis believes, until people create an environment, like a museum, where they can talk.
“Nobody is sitting down and talking with each other. And that’s what I do,” he says. “I’m willing to sit down and talk with my opposing party. I’ll give them a platform.”
Davis travels to college campuses around the country to give lectures on the history of the KKK.
Young students are the future of this country, Davis believes. They need to see for themselves the power of a genuine conversation. It’s only fitting, he says, to present a few of the robes to show their inspiring effects.
During his visits, Davis has noticed a trend at the end of his lectures.
“Two or three out of every 10 lectures, there will be a student standing off to the side away from the crowd at the podium,” Davis says. The crowd eventually dissipates and the lone student walks up to Davis. The two make small talk to become better acquainted, but Davis already knows what will happen next.
“It comes out,” he says. “My mom is in the Klan. My father’s in the Klan. All my grandparents are in the Klan. And this is how I was raised. But now I’m here.”
Davis’ presentation of KKK robes helps students understand that despite deeply held beliefs, people can change. His lectures give those students who carry a hidden burden an invitation to have a conversation and not feel alienated.
These are the moments that reaffirm Davis’ belief that more people need a space that welcomes them to talk about the Klan, a group that has shaped the country’s history dating back to Reconstruction.
Davis’ Klan museum, he says, has the opportunity to teach history, to teach acceptance and to teach hope. It’s a place where anyone — people for and against Klan beliefs — can come together.
“Let them hear each other,” Davis says. “Give them a platform and let them talk.”
This is part three of our series Changing Robes, a conversation with Daryl Davis and his life’s mission to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan and understand the origins of racism.