Scott Shepherd didn’t grow up racist, yet somehow found himself joining the KKK.
Hating black people, Shepherd says, was never the reason he joined the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee back in 1979.
“I was looking for a family,” the 56-year-old from Southaven, Miss., who went on to lead his chapter of the organization as its Grand Dragon, tells Rare. “I was looking for something I didn’t have before.”
Shepherd grew up in the small town of Indianola, Miss. — the birthplace, some argue, of the 1950s white supremacy group White Citizens Council. At home, Shepherd says his life was “dysfunctional.” His father suffered from alcoholism and a violent demeanor. As a teen, he felt alone.
When he met his first Klansman at a KKK rally in Tupelo, Miss., he was only 16 or 17 years old. Though his interaction with Klan members at the rally was brief, Shepherd says it was enough to give him a purpose.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Shepherd says. “I was caught in limbo, and then I met Daryl. He’s like a brother to me.”
It’s a story too familiar to Daryl Davis. For more than 30 years, Davis has befriended KKK members to understand how they can hate someone like him, a black man, because of the color of his skin. The reasons people join the Klan range from economic to social, Davis says. Though race became related to these reasons, it wasn’t always the core.
When Davis met Shepherd, he knew Shepherd wanted to get away from the KKK and needed help.
“He was struggling,” says Davis, 58. “[The KKK] becomes your primary family. These are your brethren. You take an oath. You know they’re going to protect you; you protect them. It’s your family.”
While Shepherd may have found a family in the KKK, he lost his family back in Mississippi.
“I knew they were hurt,” Shepherd says.
I was caught in limbo, and then I met Daryl.
When the Klan in Tennessee wanted to improve its image, Shepherd was the ideal candidate to lead the hate group.
“They wanted to look more legitimate and get more members,” Shepherd says, “look more professional.”
Shepherd, a United States Army veteran and funeral director and embalmer, already fit the outward appearance the Klan wanted. Shepherd worked heavily with recruiting new members, whether that was passing out flyers or going on TV talk shows to speak on behalf of the KKK. Shepherd also had been a candidate for public office twice in Tennessee, running for governor and state representative as a “white activist.”
His public relationship with the Klan led to friendships with high-profile, controversial figures: James Earl Ray, the man convicted of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.; J.B. Stoner, the man convicted of the 1958 bombing of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala; and David Duke, one of the most recognized KKK leaders who was nearly elected governor of Louisiana.
Shepherd’s family did not understand his new life.
“It pretty much destroyed them,” he says.
Shepherd is the father of four children. When his daughter Lori learned of his membership with the KKK, she disowned her father. She had black friends, Shepherd says, and she didn’t want him around them. When she got engaged, Shepherd wasn’t invited to the wedding; nor was Shepherd welcome for the birth of his granddaughter. They didn’t speak to each other for years.
Shepherd also lost contact with Rebecca Scott Hawkins, a black woman who was more than a caretaker and housekeeper to Shepherd. She was there when Shepherd’s mother was adopted and brought home to his grandmother’s house. She raised Shepherd and his oldest daughter. When Shepherd couldn’t receive the affection he needed from his parents, Hawkins, he says, was always there.
“Becky is family and always has been,” he says.
But Shepherd knew the Klan would never see Hawkins the way he did. So he disconnected from her after he joined the hate group. He distanced himself from his family, knowing that some of his Klan activities — cross burnings and fire bombings — would hurt them.
But he never forgot about his family during those 19 years in the Klan.
So when he left the hate group and became a self-proclaimed “reformed racist,” his life mission quickly aligned with Davis’. He made his apologies to the people he has hurt, including Bernice King, the daughter of the late civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.
By sharing his story with people across the country, Shepherd hopes to prevent others from making the choice that almost cost him the people he loves the most.
“I’ll do anything I can do to help break down racial barriers and help this country,” he says.
I don’t know what I would’ve done if she had passed away before I was able to talk to her and become a family again.
Never was Shepherd proud of what he and his Klan members did.
While Shepherd says he personally did not participate in the violence, he also admits he did nothing to stop it.
“I was sitting in and cheering it on,” Shepherd says, “so I take full responsibility and feel just as guilty because I didn’t stop it.”
Shepherd missed his family. But leaving the hate group wasn’t as simple as no longer attending meetings.
Davis supported Shepherd through his mission to separate himself from the Klan. Shepherd ended all conversations with people he met from the KKK. When he started receiving death threats from Klan members, he went into seclusion for nearly a decade.
Shepherd credits Davis for helping him reform himself into the man he is now as he begins to reconnect with the people he lost.
Shepherd remembers when he first returned to Hawkins after leaving the Klan. He walked up to her house and knocked on the front door. Hawkins, 102 years old, greeted him with a warm embrace.
“Nothing else was ever said about it,” Shepherd says.
Years had gone by, but their union was still strong as ever. Shepherd says Hawkins always knew he’d come home.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done if she had passed away before I was able to talk to her and become a family again,” Shepherd says.
Shepherd and his daughter Lori have slowly begun talking again. On a recent episode of the Steve Harvey Show, Lori met Davis for the first time.
“I just wanted to thank you so much for giving me my dad back,” Shepherd’s daughter tells Davis with tears in her eyes.
“Your dad is my brother,” Davis replies to Lorie, “so that makes me your uncle.”
Because of Davis, Shepherd has a second chance with his family.
This is part four 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.