Daryl Davis has traveled on a journey toward racial healing that few of us might choose - but many of us could learn from.
This burly, soft-spoken black man has trekked into the heart of America's Ku Klux Klan organizations - yes, willingly. He has met with dozens of KKK leaders. He has attended Klan rallies. He has even descended into a Klan Klavern - a secret basement meeting room adorned with a Confederate flag and a poster proclaiming "SAVE OUR LAND, JOIN THE KLAN."
But he's always been an invited guest. And he's never been seriously harmed.
Propelled by a desire to understand and confront racial hatred - and armed with the patience and tact learned as the son of a diplomat - he has become perhaps America's most-unorthodox ambassador for racial reconciliation.
"Unlike the bully on the playground, you can't just ignore them and hope they'll go away," says Mr. Davis of America's growing number of hate groups. If left unchecked, "racism will spread," he says in an interview. "We need to conquer the fear that creates it."
So far, he has made remarkable progress - and has written a book about his journey: "Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan," (New Horizon Press). Some KKK leaders have only gruffly tolerated his presence. But most have spoken freely and politely about their beliefs. Davis has even befriended several.
Davis first met with a major Klan leader in a Maryland hotel room. Davis had requested the meeting with Grand Dragon Roger Kelly but never mentioned his race.
When Mr. Kelly and his bodyguard arrived, they were stunned by Davis's skin color. But they stayed.
While the bodyguard anxiously fingered his gun, Davis asked Kelly his views on everything from white separatism to homosexuality to drugs.
Davis explains his strategy: "While you are actively learning about someone else, you are passively teaching them about yourself."
While Davis bristled at much of what Kelly said, the two men did find bits of common ground - such as how drugs hurt American society. In the coming months, Davis cemented a bond with Kelly through a mutual love of music. (Davis is a full-time musician who has jammed with Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and others.)
Kelly - who is still the leader of a powerful-but-moderate Klan faction - eventually invited Davis to KKK rallies and into the Klavern meeting room. The men are still close friends. Kelly even made Davis godfather to one of his daughters.
Davis reasons that by gaining access to Klan members, he can begin to chip away at the stereotypes they hold.
He tells of one conversation with a Klan member in which the man asserted that "all blacks have a gene that makes them violent." The man cited the epidemic of inner-city violence and drive-by shootings.
"But I've never done any drive-by shootings," Davis countered.
"Not yet!" the man replied, adamant.
Davis retorted with an equally ridiculous argument: "All whites have a gene that makes them serial killers."
"I told him to name me three black serial killers," Davis recounts. "I even gave him the name of one. But he couldn't come up with any more."
Then the man began to agree with him. "That's a really stupid argument," he said. "I'm not a serial killer."
Davis had made his point. And six months later, the man gave Davis his KKK robe, having quit the organization.
In fact, 11 people have quit the Klan after meeting with Davis. "These are not things I sought out," he says. When Klan members are challenged, he says, "they just can't justify their beliefs."
But all has not been so easy. Davis has had many tense meetings with Klan members that yielded no immediate fruits.
Yet Davis says these face-to-face encounters - especially among young people who aren't yet racist - are the only thing that will break through hate and fear. Most people, black or white, he says, "tend to fear the things we're ignorant of. And fear, if not kept in check, breeds hatred." "So," he says, "we've each just got to do what we can do to alleviate the hostility."