The Silver Dollar Lounge
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP, the Unrequited episode, where we give love hoping for a little bit in return. For our next story we sent SNAP's own Nick van der Kolk out to the wilds of Maryland to meet Daryl Davis, where he told us his story.
Fair warning - this piece does use a word that is not appropriate for polite company. Actually, the word is not appropriate for any company whatsoever.
DARYL DAVIS: 1983. Country music had made a resurgence in this country so I joined a country band. I was the only black guy in the band and consequently, usually the only black guy in many of the places where we played. Well, there was this truck stop in a place called Frederick, Maryland. The truck stop had a motel. In the bottom of the motel was this lounge called the Silver Dollar Lounge and it was basically an all-white lounge. Black people did not go in there. First time I played there, I came off the bandstand after the first set and I was walking across the dance floor to sit with some of my band mates and this white gentleman, probably in his mid to late 40s, gets up from his table and walks across the bandstand from behind, puts his arm around my shoulder and I stopped and turned around, looked to see who was touching me and he says, I really like your all's music. This is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.
I had no idea where this guy was coming from and I naively and innocently asked him, where did you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play? He says, what are you talking about? And I said well, Jerry Lee learned how to play that style from black blues and boogie-woogie piano players. That's where rockabilly and rock 'n' roll came from.
Oh no, no, no, no, no, no - Jerry Lee invented that. I ain't never heard no black man play like that until you.
I even told the guy, I know Jerry Lee Lewis personally. He's a good friend of mine. I've known him since I was 13 years old. He's told me himself where he learned how to play. Well, the guy didn't buy it. But he was fascinated with me and said he wanted to buy me a drink. Now I don't drink but I agreed to go back to his table and have a cranberry juice. He says, you know, this is the first time I ever sat down had a drink with a black man. And I'm thinking, you know, this guy is really having a night of firsts here. I asked him, I said, why? And he didn't answer me. He stared at the tabletop and his buddy elbowed him in the ribs and said, tell him, tell him. Now he says, I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I started laughing. I figured, OK, this guy thinks I'm jerking him around about Jerry Lee Lewis so he's going to jerk me around about the Klan. While I'm laughing, he goes inside his pocket, pulls out his wallet and hands me his Klan card. His looked like it had a Klansman on horseback and then on the other side was this red circle the white cross in the red blood in the center, which is the Ku Klux Klan insignia. It's called a MIOAK or blood drop emblem. I stop laughing 'cause I recognized that stuff, you know, this is for real. So now I'm wondering what the hell am I doing sitting at a table with a Klansman? And I gave him back his card and we talked about some other things. The guy gave me his phone number. He wanted me to call him anytime I was to come back to this bar with this band. Because he wanted to bring his buddies, right, his Klan buddies to see this black guy play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. We were on a rotation at the club every six weeks, you know, with other bands. So I call they guy, like, on a Wednesday or Thursday. I say, hey man, I'm going to be at the Silver Dollar, come on out. He'd come and he'd bring his Klansmen and Klanswomen friends, and they'd gather around and watch me play. They get out there on the dance floor and dance. There were some who didn't want to meet me, you know, they were kind of standoffish. Just, like, you know, watched me from afar, but I knew it was them. Others, you know, were curious and once you, you know, they shook my hand and all that kind of stuff. Well, anyway this went on about every six weeks until the end of '83, at which time I quit the clan - I mean, quit the clan - I quit the band. Get that right - Freudian slip there. I quit the band and I went back to playing rock 'n roll and blues and, you know, whatever genre was popular in '84. And so, you know, I, you know, I lost contact with the guy.
Music is my profession but learning more about racism on all sides of the tracks was my obsession. I began collecting everything I could get my hands on that dealt with white supremacy, black supremacy, anti-Semitism, the Nazis in Germany, the neo-Nazis over here, the Ku Klux Klan, things like that. It was incomprehensible to me that someone who had never seen me before, someone who knew absolutely nothing about me, would want to inflict pain upon me for no other reason than the color of my skin. They didn't know anything about me, I hadn't done anything. And the question that I had back then was, how can you hate me when you don't even know me? That question stayed with me. Eight years later, I decided I want an answer to my question. So I'm going to interview all these racists. I need to write a book. So I chose the Klan, because man I could've chose, you know, the Nazis but I have made some kind of relationship with this Klansman. So I'm going to track down this Klansman from the Silver Dollar Lounge. He had moved. He did not have a phone, but he had an address. So unannounced I went by his apartment one evening, OK. I knock on the door, right, in this hallway and he opens the door. He says, Daryl, what are you doing here? And he steps onto the hallway and looks up and down the hallway to see if I brought anybody with me, right? Well, when he stepped out of his apartment, I stepped in. So he turns around, he comes back in. He goes, what's going on man, are you still playing? What's going on? I said, yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm still playing, man, but listen I need to talk to you about the Klan. I said, you're a member right? He goes, well, I was. He said he'd quit and he went into this long story. Well, I said, where's all your Klansman stuff? He says, well, they came and got it. Apparently he had not paid off his robe and hood and they came and repo-ed it. And I said do you know Roger Kelly? Yeah, I know Roger. Roger was my Grand Dragon. And their terminology, they called the state leader the Grand Dragon. I asked him to hook me up with the Grand Dragon. He said, no, he couldn't do that. And I said, well, wait a minute, you're out of the Klan now. He goes, it doesn't matter Daryl. Well I begged and pleaded him to give me Mr. Kelly's information. Well, 20 minutes later he finally consented to giving it to me, on the condition that I not reveal to Mr. Kelly where I got his home address and his home phone number. He warned me, he said, Daryl, do not go to Roger Kelly's house. Roger Kelly will kill you. I called my secretary who books my band. Mary worked here, out of my house. I said, here give Roger Kelly a call and tell him you're working for somebody who's writing a book on the Klan, would he consent to sitting down for an interview. Do not tell Mr. Kelly that I'm black, unless he asks. If he asks don't lie to him, but don't elude to it, don't give him any reason to ask. And so I had her call. And he agreed. We set the meeting for the motel right above the Silver Dollar Lounge and 5:15 on a Sunday afternoon. Mary and I got there early. I gave Mary some money and I sent her down the hall to get some soda and put it in the ice bucket so I would be to offer my guest a beverage. I had no idea what this man was going to do when he saw me. Was he going to freak and attack me because I'm black? Was he going to say, I'm not talking to you and turn around and leave, or was he going to come in and be interviewed like he had agreed to do? I was not armed. My secretary was not armed. Right on time - knock, knock, knock, on the door. Mary hops up, runs around the corner and opens the door. In walks the Grand Nighthawk. Nighthawk, in Klan terminology, means bodyguard. He's wearing military camouflage fatigues, the Ku Klux Klan insignia and on his right hip he had a gun. Mr. Kelly is walking directly behind this guy in a dark blue suit. The Nighthawk turns the corner and upon seeing me he freezes instantly. Mr. Kelly bumped into his back and they stumbled around, you know, trying to regain their balance, looking over the room, like, uh-huh, something's wrong here. I get up and I walk over and I said hi, Mr. Kelly. I put my hand out. My name is Daryl Davis. He shook my hand. So far so good, I said, come and come in. The Nighthawk shook my hand. Mr. Kelly sat down. I'm like yes - he's going to do it. And the Nighthawk stood at attention to his right. But before I could sit down Mr. Kelly says to me, Mr. Davis, do you have any form of identification. And I said, yes, and I reached into my wallet and I pulled out my driver’s license and gave it to him. And he says, oh, you live on Flock Street, in Silver Spring. Well, now that had me a little concerned. Why is this man reciting my street address? He doesn't need to know that. I don't need him coming here burning a cross on my lawn. I didn't let him know that he had, you know, slightly unnerved me or rattled me but I wanted to let him know that, you know, don't screw around. So I said, yes Mr. Kelly that is where I live. And you live at, and I named his house number and his street. We started doing the interview. And everything, you know, was going along smooth. I mean, every now and then somebody might pound the table with their fist to make a point. Every time Mr. Kelly would say, well, Mr. Davis the Bible says, you know, I'd reach down into my bag and pull out the Bible and hand to him to show me where. It said blacks and whites had to be separate, or my cassette ran out of tape I'd reach down into the bag and pull out my cassette and refresh the recorder. Every time I reached down the Nighthawk would reach up to his gun. A little over an hour into this interview there was a strange noise, kind of like (imitating rustling sound). I immediately jumped out of my chair and slammed my hands on the table. My mind was racing like, you know, 90 miles an hour trying to think, what did I just say, what did I just do to cause him to go off and make some weird? And I could here in the back of my head was that former Klansman saying, Daryl, do not fool with Roger Kelly. Roger Kelly will kill you. So I didn't want to die that day and I'm getting ready to come across that table, grab the Nighthawk and Mr. Kelly and slam them both down to the ground and disarm to Nighthawk. My eyes locked with Roger Kelly eyes. My eyes were clearly saying, what did you just do? And I could read his eyes, what did you just do? And the Nighthawk had his hand on his gun looking back and forth between both of us like, what did either one of y'all just do? Mary, she was over here sitting on top of the dresser. She realized what happened. And then it made that same noise again. Some of the ice cubes in the ice container melted, in the ice bucket melted, and the cans of soda shifted. We all began laughing at how ignorant we were. We continue with the interview and there were no more problems. At the end I shook their hands and thanked them for their time. And Mr. Kelly gave me one of his Klan cards. And he said, keep in touch. And I was thinking to myself - I didn't say it - but I was thinking to myself, what? You know, I didn't come here to make friends with the Klan. I came here to find out - how can you hate me when you don't know me? And he didn't like me, he told me as much. On the way back home, I said to Mary, in my car, I said, you know, I rather like Roger Kelly. I like him as a person. I do not like what Roger Kelly stands for. But I found that we had more in common than we did in contrast. Basically what we had in contrast was how we each felt about race. Other than that we agreed on a lot of things in common; we need to get drugs off the street, we need better education for kids. Things like that, you know, we can agree upon. So whenever I had a gig up in his county, I'd call him and say, hey man, I'm playing here or playing there, come on out. He'd come. He'd bring the Nighthawk with him, but he'd come. Sometimes I would invite him down here. He'd come down here, he sat right over there on the couch. Sometimes I would invite over some of my Jewish friends, some of my black friends, some of my other white friends, just to engage Mr. Kelly in conversation with somebody other than me. I didn't want him to think I was some exception. I want him to talk to other people. After a while, he began coming down here by himself, no Nighthawk. He trusted me that much, all right. After a couple of years, he became Imperial Wizard. He was elevated from state leader to national leader, Imperial Wizard. He began inviting me to his house.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome to this final hour of CNN Sunday Morning. Friendship can transcend all kinds of boundaries.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Just look at us. Two men in the Washington area are showing that even an African-American man and a member of the Ku Klux Klan can find common ground. CNN's Carl Rochelle reports.
CARL ROCHELLE: Davis is one of the few African-Americans you will ever find attending a KKK rally, more than attending, he is welcome.
ROGER KELLY: I got more respect for that black man than I do for you white niggers out there.
We get to know one another and we do different things. You know, it hasn't changed my views about the Klan, you know, because my views on the Klan have been pretty much cemented in my mind for years. I believe in separation of the races, I believe that's in the best interest of all races.
I would follow that man to hell and back because I believe in what he says more than he I believe in what I stand for. A lot of times we don't agree with everything but least he respects me to sit down and listen to me. And our respect him and sit down and listen to him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, CNN)
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, CNN)
ROCHELLE: The strange relationship of a KKK wizard and his black buddy. In Washington, I'm Carl Rochelle.
DAVIS: If you have an adversary, an opponent with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me I've heard something so extreme at these rallies it'll cut you to the bone. If you agree with them, great - no problem. If you don't agree with them, that's fine, too. You challenge them, but you don't challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently and when you do things that way, chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform.
So he and I would sit down and listen to one another. Over a period of time, that cement that he talked about that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it and then it began to crumble and then it fell apart. And then a few years ago Roger Kelly quit the Ku Klux Klan. He no longer believes today what he said on that videotape, OK and when he quit the Klan, he gave me his robe and hood. This is the robe of the Imperial Wizard.
When the three Klan leaders here in Maryland - Robert White, Roger Kelly and Chester Doles - and I became friends with each one of them - when the three Klan leaders here in Maryland left the Klan and became friends of mine, that ended the Ku Klux Klan in the state of Maryland. Today there is no more Ku Klux Klan in the state of Maryland. They've tried to revive it every now and then, but it immediately falls apart.
NICK VAN DER KOLK, BYLINE: Do you think there's a danger at all, that there's some sort of like, tacit approval happening that he can sort of point to you and be like, hey this black guy, we're cool so therefore my separatist beliefs are right?
DAVIS: Some of them might feel that way, yeah, sure. I know where I stand and I never let it, you know, let it be questioned. They know that I do not approve of separatism or supremacy, or whatever but I have no problem sitting there, you know, shaking their hands. I maintain my beliefs.
VAN DER KOLK: Have ever gotten criticism from black folks?
DAVIS: Of course, absolutely. Now, black people who are friends of mine who know me understand where I'm coming from. Some black people who have not heard me interviewed or who have not read my book, some of them jump to conclusions and prejudge me, just like the Klan. I've been called an Uncle Tom, I've been called an Oreo. I had one guy from a NAACP branch chew me up one side and down the other saying, you know, we've worked hard to get 10 steps forward and here you are sitting down with the enemy having dinner and you're putting us 20 steps back.
I pull out my robes and hoods and say look, this is what I've done to put a dent in racism. I've got robes and hoods hanging in my closet by people who've given up that belief because of my conversations of sitting down to dinner and they gave it up. How many robes and hoods have you collected? And then they shut up.
WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Daryl Davis. Now, we love a diversity of opinion on the SNAP, but I have to ask you a favor - if you see me on stage with the Klan, please, please call the authorities at once - I have been kidnapped and beaten and being held against my will. Thank you.
Daryl Davis wrote a book about his experiences called "Klan-Destine Relationships." He spoke with our own Nick van der Kolk.
When SNAP JUDGMENT returns we hang out with the highest social class of all - rock stars.
SNAP JUDGMENT, baby. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.