Blues pianist Daryl Davis believes in confronting racism - one person at a time.
The 59-year-old, African-American musician and author recently spoke at an SPA event about his 30-year experience interviewing Ku Klux Klan members, many of whom he befriended and led them to renounce their racist views.
In his early years, Davis attended international schools overseas where he said the multicultural classes looked like a "little United Nations." It wasn't until he returned to the states in 1968 that he first encountered racism. When people in a community parade threw rocks at him marching as the only black Cub Scout, he was baffled at why the color of his skin would prompt such a reaction.
"I formed a question in my mind: How can you hate me, when you don't even know me? For the next 49 years, I've been looking for the answer," says the Howard University graduate, who attended high school in Rockville, Maryland.
Davis described to the audience how he eventually found that communication and respect are an important part of breaking down the barriers of racism, even with those with whom you fundamentally disagree.
"Talking with people is the key," says Davis, who showed a few of the many robes and hoods given to him by former KKK members. "We need to get out of these echo chambers and begin talking with each other."
Davis wrote "Klan-Destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan," in 1998 and is working on a revised edition due out in the spring. He was also featured in the documentary, "Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America." His friendship with Roger Kelly, Grand Dragon of the Maryland KKK, was the subject of a story on CNN and Davis' efforts to address racism through dialogue have garnered him media attention.
SPA Professor Gregg Ivers, also a musician, facilitated Davis's invitation to campus and introduced him during the event.
"Davis has an interesting way of exploring how opposite sides think, and the way people react when they meet the unknown," said Ivers. "Inviting Davis to campus was about starting a dialogue among students and the community. How do we put aside our anger and listen to each other?"
"We are fearful of those things we don't understand," Davis told the audience of hundreds of AU students in the room and hundreds more watching live on Facebook. "When two enemies are talking, they are not fighting. They may disagree, but at least they are talking."
"He seems like a pioneer. Someone to look up to," said Dario Garone, a first-year student at AU. "What he said tonight was really powerful."
SPA Dean Vicky Wilkins said many at AU and in the broader community are working hard to respond to recent racial incidents.
"We are all frustrated by inaction," said Wilkins. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to be provided with a way forward that we can put into action."
The entire event was streamed live on the AU School of Public Affairs Facebook page.