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The Power of Seeking to Understand: How A Black Man Enlightened Members of the KKK

Photo credit: Jeff Taylor

You are about to hear a heroine story of how one boy’s desire to answer a question, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”, sparked a change of heart in over 200 members of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan), and has grabbed the attention of millions of people from around the world.

The year is 1968, and ten-year-old Daryl Davis marches proudly, holding the American flag, as he leads his Cub Scout troop on a march from Lexington to Concord, MA, in commemoration of the ride of Paul Revere. Suddenly, Daryl is being hit with debris—bottles, rocks, and cans—flung by a group of spectators. Daryl assumes the angry crowd doesn’t like the scouts until troop leaders surround Daryl and escort him to safety. That’s when he realizes it isn’t the scouts they are targeting; it’s him, a black boy, ignorant to the hatred of racism.

Remarkably, young Daryl did not allow the hatred of others to transform into bitterness. Instead, he sought to objectively answer that one question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

Today, Daryl Davis is an international musician who has played with legends like B.B King, Jerry Lewis, and Chuck Berry. However, Daryl is not only revered for his ability to shred a keyboard and play Boogie Woogie and Blues but his humbling ability to come from a place of curiosity and understanding when conversing with people who hate him—simply for the color of his skin.

As Daryl reflects on the incident, he says, “It was inconceivable to me that someone who had never laid eyes on me, never spoken to me, knew absolutely nothing about me, would want to inflict pain upon me for no other reason… than the color of my skin.”

Shortly after the incident in 1968, Daryl began to read books about racism, white supremacy, the KKK, and neo-Nazism to better understand their beliefs and where this hatred stems from. Once Daryl reached adulthood, he began to meet with members of the KKK and attend their rallies as an observer. Daryl remarks, “I would try to absorb and understand, not that I believe in what they’re preaching, but I am trying to learn to understand what the impetus for it is. Racism is something that is learned, and if it can be learned, it can be unlearned.”

The first time Daryl asked, “how can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” he received responses like blacks are criminals, based on the fact there are more blacks in prison than whites; blacks are lazy and live off welfare; blacks have smaller brains and are an inferior race.

Instead of responding with rage to the offensive remarks, Daryl let them “get it all out,” he says. Daryl calmly and respectfully assured the Klan members that he had never been in trouble with the law, never been on welfare, and while he had never measured his brain, he was sure it was no smaller than anyone else’s.

What makes Daryl’s story so remarkable is his ability not to take their ignorance as a personal attack. What would make most of us want to fire back with insults, rage, and furry, Daryl saw as an opportunity to educate and enlighten.

Not once did he try to convince them they were wrong. The change occurred organically. His willingness to understand and show compassion in the face of adversity subsequently opened the hearts and minds of his adversaries. Before Daryl speaks, he listens without interruption. “Respect is key,” Daryl says. And it takes time. Some Klansmen took years to leave the Klan and change their ways of thinking. One of which was Grand Dragon (state leader of the Klan), Roger Kelly. Even after several years of knowing and admittingly respecting Daryl, Kelly stated during a CNN interview back in 1996, “It hasn’t changed my views about the Klan, you know, because my views about the Klan has been pretty much cemented in my mind for years.”

After this interview, Roger took two additional years to denounce his affiliation with the Klan and apologize for his misguided beliefs and hateful acts. Daryl remarks at the closing of a TEDx Talk, “If I can do that (referring to his willingness to listen and understand), anybody in here can do that.”

Based on that statement, what will you choose to do the next time you encounter an adversary? Will you impulsively react and lean into the conflict or follow in the admirable footsteps of Daryl Davis—seeking to understand, respect, and enlighten?

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