Why I Invited Daryl Davis to Speak in DC

Grace, Race and the KKK ~ Daryl Davis from Mockingbird on Vimeo. There’s a scene […]

David Zahl / 9.1.17

Grace, Race and the KKK ~ Daryl Davis from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

There’s a scene about fifteen minutes into Accidental Courtesy, the 2016 documentary about musician Daryl Davis, that so blew my hair back that I immediately looked up his contact info for the purposes of begging him to join us at our event in Washington, DC.

The scene begins with a clip from Geraldo Rivera’s old daytime talk show, Geraldo, where the titular host is interviewing various families involved in Neo-Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan, the focus being on those who are “too young to hate”. Daryl is also on the show that day, presumably as a resident expert, albeit an unconventional one. Daryl, you see, is a middle-aged black man.

Geraldo brings out a twelve-year old named Erin Puig, along with her sister, mother and father, and asks the young girl what she makes of her parents’ involvement in the Klan. She says she thinks it’s fine and that she plans to take part when she gets older.

After the show airs (it’s unclear exactly when), Daryl finds out that Erin’s father has been sentenced to ten years in a federal prison. And so he does the unthinkable and phones Tina Puig, mother of Erin and wife to the incarcerated white supremacist. When he identifies himself, she hits the roof, “cursing [him] up one side and down the other”, presumably spewing every racial epithet she can think of.

Instead of responding in kind, or hanging up, Daryl lets her get it all out. He then tells Tina that he’s flying to Chicago (where they live) with the intention of driving her and the girls to Marion, IL, site of the federal penitentiary where Mr. Puig is imprisoned, so that they can visit him. Nobody in the Klan had offered to do that for them.

The next clip shows Tina a few years later, standing on a stage next to Daryl, addressing a Maryland crowd on MLK Day, telling them how far “her little girl has come” despite the fact that she and her husband had done so much destroy (her word!) her kids. She says she believes that God works through other people, and Daryl has been one such instrument in the life of her family. We then get a shot of young Erin, all grown up and now married to a black man herself, sitting next to Daryl and wishing the town of Rockville a blessed MLK celebration.

The rest of the documentary is jam-packed with such stories. Daryl, it turns out, has been on a 30 year mission to answer the question “how can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

Yet it’s his method that boggles the mind. One-on-one is his mode of approach, but he doesn’t lead with stipulations or accusations. He leads with interest and, well, friendship. Daryl lets his antagonists have the first word, and he genuinely seems to listen to their (shameful) rhetoric. He doesn’t demand that they renounce their attitudes and associations before they spend time with him. He simply gets to know these guys (and allows them to know him), and whatever happens next happens of its own volition.

Daryl on stage with his hero Chuck Berry. Featured image depicts Daryl with Jerry Lee Lewis.

Needless to say, the fruit is miraculous. We watch as Klansman after Klansman relinquishes his robes to Daryl. Not everyone (and not always immediately), of course, but more than you’d think.

It’s not just that Daryl has the patience of a, you know. It is that he is somehow able to separate individuals from the ideology they espouse, even when that ideology is directed against him personally. I found it impossible to watch Accidental Courtesy and not think of Matthew 5:44. Or Romans 5:8 for that matter.

Of course, as the documentary all too clearly illustrates, not everyone agrees with Daryl’s way of doing things. Some find his methods offensive to the point of infuriating–which is hard not to read as a confirmation of grace at work. I’ll leave it to you to form your own opinion.

Whatever the case, if you, like me, have been starving for a glimpse of honest-to-God hope when it comes to race relations in our city/country/world–what it actually looks like for ‘love to trump hate’, or for grace to trump law–look no further. (The fact that the man plays a mean boogie-woogie (at Sun Studios no less!), or that he’s shaken the hand of all four(!) of the Million Dollar Quartet, is just icing on the proverbial cake.)

Just goes to show that when it comes to the grace of God,…

Click here to listen to Daryl’s recent interview on NPR. Or read the Washington Post profile that ran this week. Accidental Courtesy is available to watch on Netflix.