by Wanda Sabir
When Dr. Martin Luther King addressed the white clergy in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” on Good Friday, April 3, 1963, their response was not immediate. Critical, they questioned the necessity for direct action, civil disobedience and protest. Seated in a solitary prison cell, King responds to the letter, writing on scraps of paper and then having his letter smuggled out. The issues raised by King have not disappeared, “that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – there are still two Americas.
In the film “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America,” the activist quietly befriends the philosophical offspring of the white supremacists who made Dr. King’s job so hard from Bombingham to Selma. The musician’s archival cache of 25 robes given to him by former Ku Klux Klan officials runs counter to plans by attorney and founder Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson for a Lynching Memorial in Alabama’s state capital; however, there is room in the discourse on race and justice for both.
Daryl Davis, Black man, holds the unique distinction of being an expert on the Ku Klux Klan, though not in the same way Southern Poverty Law Center Senior Fellow Mark Potok is. No, the SPLC “doesn’t go in and have coffee”; rather, it was established in 1971 to destroy or marginalize the Klan and what it upholds.
In the film “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America,” the activist quietly befriends the philosophical offspring of the white supremacists who made Dr. King’s job so hard from Bombingham to Selma.
Davis, on the other hand, is often consulted by Klan friends who, not clear on their duties or obligations, ask him to clarify. The bluesman, known for his boogie-woogie piano style, invited a Klansman to his wedding and visits others in their homes. Yep, Brother Daryl has, let’s say, a different hobby, one some Black folks believe is a waste of time.
California has its share of white supremacists and racists. Lee Williams’s son was hung in Concord by one, and there is a photo of a Klan march in downtown Oakland in the Oakland Museum exhibit: “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50.” (It is up through Feb. 26). There is a robe in the showcase nearby.
We get to travel across the country with Davis as he introduces us to his people – white supremacists and racists. The question he poses, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” gets him into the room. Perhaps his challenge opens the door to the beloved community Dr. King spoke of?
Davis tells us about a gig in a white bar playing Country Western music. At the break, he’s invited to have a drink. The patron mentions that it’s the first time he ever sat and drank with a Black man. When Davis asks why, he learns that the guy is Imperial Wizard Roger Kelly. Kelly then gives Davis his card and tells him to call him when he is in town again. Davis does. The next time, his new “friend” brings more friends and they all laugh, dance and have a good time, Davis says, when Klansmen come to party and leave their costumes at home. This was 34 years ago.
We get to travel across the country with Davis as he introduces us to his people – white supremacists and racists. The question he poses, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” gets him into the room.
The son of an international diplomat, Davis learns about segregation and bigotry while marching in a parade with the Boy Scouts when he is 10. As he carries the American flag, bottles and cans come heralding at him. Soon the adults surround him and move him away from the fray. When he gets home and he shares how he was hurt, his mom and dad have “the talk” with him. After living abroad in many countries, Davis cannot believe someone would hate him because he is Black. This lesson lies dormant until stimulated that evening in the bar.
With a KKK collection which includes pins and knives, buttons, flags and of course robes and hoods, Davis writes a book in 1998, “Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan,” which chronicles these developing relationships. He speaks to patriotic Klan members called “traditionalists,” whose credo is “the crow and the eagle are both birds, they just don’t fly together.”
These KKK members do not believe in miscegenation, although Davis’s wife is white. Traditionalists do not hate others, Imperial Wizard of Missouri Frank Acona says in “Accidental.” They are Christians and Americans. He also speaks to Knights Party National Organizer Rachel Pendergraph and Knights of the Ku Klux Klan National Director and Pastor Thomas Robb. Neither budges on the issue of white supremacy.
The National Socialist Movement supports white power too and wants a separate state for white people, whom they feel are oppressed. Inspired by Hitler, Jeff Schoef, leader of the neo-Nazi group, says the first order of business is eliminating Zionist Jews. When Davis compares the NAACP to the NSM, Schoef states the NSM is for white people. Davis then shifts to a question about music and learns Schoef likes rock, which Davis tells him was created by Black people.
It was an accidental courtesy – for a moment, Kelly responded to another human being with integrity. He saw a Black man, whose music he enjoyed, and he wanted to show his appreciation. And then he noticed himself sitting with this man at the table and was like wow. Davis probably could not have predicted the trajectory a drink with Kelly would take him on, but three decades later he is still on the road.
Outside of W. Kamau Bell’s CNN hit, “United Shades of America,” not many Black men have tea with Grand Dragons at the top of their “to-do lists.” Nonetheless, Davis’s query and face to face interactions make these white supremacists and racists critique their positions, and after reflection find racial hatred without merit. Scott Shepherd, former Grand Dragon, now reformed racist, has dedicated his life to undoing racism. This is one of many reasons why Davis has so many robes.
The humanitarian continues to sit across the table from men who hate him. He is patient and lets the men talk. In his reaching across the aisle, Davis has opened a necessary dialogue. Funny, how racists have a megaphone while descendants of formerly enslaved Africans have no platform, no reparations – economic or philosophical.
Davis’s query and face to face interactions make these white supremacists and racists critique their positions, and after reflection find racial hatred without merit.
Davis challenges the white supremacist ideology spewed forth without thought. Within this context, the audience witnesses the complete absence of thought or concern for the token Black man seated in front of them. The white supremacists might not hate Davis, at the end of the dialogue, but there is no curiosity expressed. It is all about them and their loss, not the collective loss on both sides.
When Davis tries to translate his work within the Black Lives Matter (#BLM) paradigm, it fails. Not only is he disrespectful of the work young people like Tariq Touré, poet, author, and Kwame Ross, #BLM activist and speaker, are engaged in to save Black lives, he calls the youth names and fails to see how at the heart of police brutality and use of force is the legacy of slavery and, at its legal conclusion, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, Dec. 24, 1865, a gang that continues its legacy of terror today. When Ross asks Davis if he knows anything about trauma, the kind of intergenerational trauma a Klan History Museum might trigger in Black visitors, he has no answer. The efficacy of Davis’s work is challenged, perhaps something he’s not used to. Black people are not his audience, which is OK. We just need to be clear about it.
The reason Trump won the election was that white identity felt and continues to feel threatened; Davis acknowledges this and gives these men and women and children space to speak. In a democracy, all voices supposedly have a right to be heard; however, we know there is censorship within the discourse. We also know the dominant narrative is shaped by white power, not popular opinion.
In some ways, Davis plays into this with “Accidental.” Nonetheless, one robe at a time, this man is unraveling a thread stitched into this often contentious tapestry called the United States of America. The film is available online beginning Feb. 14 at pbs.org.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at email@example.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.