Why this Black musician, activist speaks with white supremacist leaders — and what he has learned

Daryl Davis and Itay Pearl at the Be'er Sheva Fringe Theater, November 7th, 2017 (© Dani Machlis Photography)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When Daryl Davis was 10 years old, he was the only Black member of his Cub Scout troop walking in a march in a Boston suburb. The group of scouts was marching from Lexington to Concord to commemorate the ride of Paul Revere. It was 1968.

Suddenly, someone who was standing in the mostly white crowd along the street threw a soda can at him. It didn’t stop there. Bottles and rocks left the hands of onlookers and flew in his direction.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh, you know, those few people over there that are doing this, you know, must not like the scouts.’ That’s how naive I was,” Davis said. “It wasn’t until my den mother, my cub Master, my troop leader all came running and covered me with their own bodies and quickly escorted me out of the danger that I realized I was the only scout getting this special protection. So now I’m questioning him, like, ‘Why is this happening? What did I do?’”

That was his introduction to racism.

Daryl Davis (middle, top row) with elementary school classmates. (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

“At the age of 10, I had never heard the word racism. I had no clue what my parents were talking about,” Davis said.

Davis said that’s because his father was a Department of State Foreign Service officer. He calls himself an “American Embassy kid.” He lived all over the world and was exposed to all different cultures when he was in elementary school.

“Racism did not exist in my sphere overseas. My classmates were from Japan, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, France, Germany, Italy, Australia. Anybody who had an embassy where we were stationed, all their kids went to the same school,” he said. “So they may not look like me, maybe they don’t speak as I do or worship as I do, but we all got along.”

NEWS4JAX+ | Watch the extended interview with Daryl Davis

Now that he is older, Davis’ mission is to make the United States more like his classrooms overseas.

Davis — a jazz musician, activist and lecturer — now travels the country meeting with members of the KKK and other white supremacist groups. Davis thrives on diving deep into conversations with those devoted to hate and offering them a chance to change their perspective about people of color. He has convinced a number of Klansmen to leave and denounce the KKK, he said.

“I’ve been doing this now for 41 years and I have tons of robes and hoods, and swastika flags given to me by active members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups and other hate groups and things like that, who have now renounced that ideology. Some of them even come out with me and speak on my stage,” Davis said.

Davis said through the years, he has come to understand why so many members end up joining hate groups or becoming “lone-wolf” mass shooters that target Black and Jewish Americans.

He talked about Census data that shows white Americans are expected to become a minority by 2042.

Daryl Davis sits with flags and hoods he received from former white supremacists. (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

“And while there are a lot of white people who don’t care, they say, ‘Hey, that’s evolution. That’s no big deal. Didn’t bother me.’ There’s also a percentage of our population that does care. And I deal with that percentage,” Davis said. “They want to stop this shift because you know, when you have been in the seat of power for 400 years, you don’t want to get off.”

Davis has watched the expansion of hate groups in recent decades as more people start to fear their identity is being erased.

“When the group fails to take our country back or doesn’t act fast enough, some of them get frustrated, and they say, ‘You know what, if the Klan can’t do it, I’ll do it myself.’ And that’s when they walk into a Black church in South Carolina,” Davis said.

He said the key to overcoming the pervasive racism in the country and beginning healing starts with a conversation.

“No matter who I meet, I always conclude that we’re all human beings, and we all want these five core values in our lives: Everyone wants to be loved. We all want to be respected. We all want to be heard. We all want to be treated fairly. And we all want the same things for our family as anybody else wants for their family. And if we can learn to apply those five values or any of those five values, when we find ourselves in an adversarial situation or in an uncomfortable society or culture, I can guarantee the navigation will be much more smooth and much more positive. We don’t have to assimilate into that culture, whether that society or acquiesce into that adversarial thing, but we need to learn how to have civil conversations. ... The most effective weapon against [racism] is also the least expensive, it’s free, and it’s still the least underused, it’s called conversation. I believe that a missed opportunity for conversation is a missed opportunity for reconciliation.”

About the Authors:

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.