Don’t Let Fear Win: Keep the Conversation Going

“When two enemies are talking, they aren’t fighting. It’s when the talking stops that the violence starts. Keep the conversation going.”

This is how Daryl Davis concludes his TedX Talk, Why I, as a black man, attend KKK rallies, December 8, 2017. Yes, that right, a black man who attends KKK rallies!

Let that sink in a little bit.

It’s not that Daryl Davis has any affinity for the KKK. He certainly doesn’t, but he is an outside-the-box thinker. When he came to the realization that racial prejudice exists as a young naive boy, and that it was aimed at him (it took some time for that to sink in for him at 10 years old), he began to aks questions. He wanted to know how people could hate him if they didn’t even now him.

That question led him to read books on white supremacy, black supremacy and similar topics, but he couldn’t find an answer. He figured, then, that the best way to get an answer would be to go to the source. By that time, he was an adult.

His curiosity led him to invite the Imperial Wizard, the national leader, of the Ku Klux Klan to meet with him. He was told, “Do not fool with Mr. Kelly. He will kill you!” His curiosity, though, was stronger than his fear.

His secretary set up the meeting, as requested, in a local hotel room. His imperial guest knew only that the interview was to be about his involvement in Klan. No one told the Imperial Wizard that his interviewee was black.

The man showed up right on time, and in walked Mr. Kelly with his armed body guard . They froze when they saw their host, but they entered anyway as Daryl Davis invited them to sit down.

The meeting was tense. About an hour into the meeting there was a strange noise that Davis thought came from his guest. He was instantly ready to lunge from his seat to take down his guest and his bodyguard as those previous words of warning percolated in his head. (“He will kill you!)

Daryl glared into the eyes of Mr. Kelly with the intensity of a man demanding to know what caused that noise! The Imperial Wizard glared back at him with the same urgent intensity as the body guard looked from one man, then to the other with his hand on his gun. Anything could have happened.

In a moment, Daryl’s secretary, Mary, realized what happened and began to laugh. She had filled a cooler with ice and cans of soda pop for the meeting. She knew immediately that foreign noise was merely the cans falling with the melting, shifting ice. They all laughed in relief at the sudden fear that foreign noised caused in their ignorance of its source.

The story gets better, and the lessons to be drawn from it are especially poignant in this time of increasing political, racial and religious polarization in the United States. I think also, of another man who died only yesterday who left a similar legacy of conquering fear. But first, I will tell the rest of the story of the black musician who invited the Imperial Wizard of the KKK to meet him in a hotel room.

That meeting began a relationship between the Imperial Wizard of the KKK and Daryl Davis, the African American blues musician. The met regularly at Daryl’s house at first. Over time Daryl became a regular guest at Mr. Kelly’s house. The two became genuine friends, despite the obvious racial differences. Eventually, the Imperial Wizard invited Daryl Davis to a Ku Klux Klan rally, and he accepted!

It didn’t happen over night, but eventually the relationship changed everything, and Daryl has the Klan robes to prove it. Mr. Kelly renounced his involvement in the KKK. Many years later, Daryl Davis has accumulated quite a collection of KKK robes – each one of them signifying a man who left the Klan because of the unlikely friendship of a black man.

I have written about Daryl Davis before (Crossing the Racial Divide). You can listen to Daryl Davis talk about it himself in the TedX Talk linked below or read his book, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan, published in 2005. 

He says that the lesson that was learned in that initial meeting with the Imperial Wizard of the KKK is that “ignorance breeds fear. We fear those things we do not understand. If we do not keep that fear in check, that fear, in turn, will breed hatred, because we hate those things that frighten us. If we don’t keep that fear in check, we will destroy those things that we hate. Why? Because they cause us to be afraid.”

I would add that we don’t usually fear those things that we know; we tend to fear the things we don’t know, the things that are not familiar to us.

Daryl Davis chose to keep his own fear in check and to get to know the people he feared in the effort to find out why a person could hate him without even knowing him. It turns out the answer is fear. Fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar.

As I think about the polarization I see on social media that has been exasperated by a worldwide viral epidemic, I take some heart in the example of Daryl Davis. I don’t know any one issue in my lifetime that is more divisive than racial prejudice. If a black musician can cross that divide and form a relationship with the very people who despise him for his race, I think we can all reach across the gaps that divide us and do the same.

But it takes some initiative. We have to keep our fear in check. It helps to have some genuine curiosity too and a willingness to get to know people with whom we aren’t familiar, people with whom we don’t agree.

I reached a point of frustration a couple of nights ago on Facebook, as I read of the plans that Facebook will roll out, including warnings to people who “like” or react to “fake news”. That on top of the increasingly polarized world of Facebook brought me to a point of despairing. Which is worse? The wild west or the thought police?

We have to be able to communicate with each other, even when we disagree. The problem with Facebook is that everyone can stay safely behind their keyboards. We lose the benefit of face to face interaction, and we tend to be unkind to each other more than we would be in person. On the other hand, we have much more interaction with people with whom we don’t agree than we ever have before, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a double-edged sword.

I take heart, though, in the examples of brave men who took the initiative and the interest to get to know people who disagreed with them, and even hated them. They didn’t let fear stop them. They pushed past their own fears. They disarmed the people who feared them with an invitation, a handshake, a warm smile and a real interest to get to know them. I think we can learn something from that. Regardless of the fear (or despair), we need to keep the conversations going and do it well, with gentleness and respect.

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