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The white nationalist organization Ku Klux Klan once boasted millions of members in the early 20th Century, but their numbers are much smaller these days. Daryl Davis, a Black musician who befriends KKK members, may share some responsibility in the group’s shrinking membership.

Davis, a “boogie woogie” piano player, has played with a long list of celebrities across musical genres, including Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and others. Despite his remarkable musical journey, Davis made a mark in an entirely different way back in 1983 when he met with a Klansman after a set he performed in an all-white lounge as reported by the Las Vegas Guardian.

From the Guardian:

“He came up to me and said he liked my piano playing,” says Davis, “then he told me this was the first time he heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.” Davis, somewhat amused, explained to the man: “Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie woogie piano players and he’s a friend of mine. He told me himself where he learned to play.” At first, Davis says, the man was skeptical that Jerry Lee Lewis had been schooled by black musicians, but Davis went on to explain in more detail. “He was fascinated,” says Davis, “but he didn’t believe me. Then, he told me he was a Klansman.”

Eight years later, Davis would seek out the Klansman and asked him for a connection for the KKK leader in Maryland. Davis was embarking on writing a book about his experiences with racism and his encounters with Klan members, hoping to build a bridge between he and the vilified group. A native of the state, Davis met with leader Roger Kelly and the pair had a tense discussion with a menacing bodyguard present the entire time.

However, Davis and Kelly became friends and slowly, other Klan members would leave the organization based on their friendship with the piano player. Davis made a practice of collecting the hoods and robes of those who left the KKK, and doesn’t necessarily have a problem with the group’s existence.

“I respect someone’s right to air their views whether they are wrong or right,” said Davis. You have to address what’s in the person head and in their heart.”

Davis’ book Klan-Destine Relationships is available now. Davis also delivers lectures on race relations and has an extensive touring schedule as well.

Check out photos of Davis over the course of his career and the hoods he’s collected on the following pages.

Photos: Daryl Davis

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