The klansman and the musician, an unlikely friendship
Staring at a black man in Charlottesville a year ago, Richard Preston took out his gun and fired. Now he, an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is being stared at by a crowd of black people at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
He walks past a long line of people waiting to pay their respects to murdered teenager Emmett Till.
There is a lone pew. The mood is somber and heavy. Like a never-ending memorial service or wake.
And there is the glass-topped casket, demanded by Till’s mother so everyone could see how her boy had been beaten beyond recognition. Till was killed in Mississippi in 1955 when he was 14 years old by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His gruesome death further mobilized the civil rights movement.
Women and men begin to wipe tears from their face as they see the casket, which came to the museum after Till’s body was exhumed in 2005 as part of a criminal investigation, and the boy’s smiling picture placed next to it. Some remove their hats to pay respect. They listen to the voice of Till’s mother describing her son’s mangled body. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s version of “Amazing Grace” pierces through the otherwise hushed room.
Preston is quiet as he faces the casket, having said earlier he wants to take in the history at the museum in Washington, DC.
Some people point at him, mouths agape. Some shake their heads. No one speaks to him. But it’s clear many are offended. This leader of a chapter of the Klan is wearing a bandana of the Confederate flag – a symbol of the old South and for many a symbol of slavery.
Preston does not engage with the people around him. He came for the museum, not for them. And anyway, he sees nothing wrong with wearing what he calls the rebel flag.
“It should not be offensive to anybody, that’s the whole thing. It’s just a piece of history,” he says. “We were there to see history and I wore a piece of history. It’s not against anybody. It’s not hatred.”
There is one African-American man who is talking with Preston, and it’s the reason he is at the museum. Daryl Davis, an R&B musician, has spent decades engaging with the Klan and has evidence he’s helped turn hearts away from hate. Davis says he has befriended 200 klansmen over the years who have subsequently left the group. More than 40 of them did so with a simple gesture and a powerful symbol: they relinquished their KKK robes to Davis. Preston is not unlike many of those men. He even knows some of them or calls them friends.
The visit by the pair to the museum has been long planned but took on extra significance after Preston was arrested amid violence surrounding the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville a year ago, which he attended as part of the “Real Three Percent Rising” militia. It was there Preston a fired a gun into the ground, shouting “n***er” at a black man with a blow torch, believing lives were at risk.
“How do you get one black man’s attention in a crowd full of black people?” Preston asks.
He believes he was allowed to become the law in that moment, when he says police didn’t. Preston will be sentenced later this month after he pleaded no contest to charges relating to firing the weapon.
Davis had paid some of Preston’s bail money and suggested to the judge that visiting the museum could be some form of mitigation, in the way a dangerous driver might take an educational course.
“It’s going to plant a seed,” Davis says. “The seed may not blossom today, tomorrow, the next day, but eventually it will come out because the truth never can, never can never be squashed.”
In the eye of the beholder
But the truths they both saw in that museum were quite different.
While Davis may have hoped Preston would have seen into some of the lives of African-Americans through the vivid displays, the klansman speaks of the artifacts, the old cabins, buildings and rifles. Not of the human toll of slavery, of Jim Crow and denial of civil rights. He speaks of how “history is the greatest power of knowledge” but he also challenges some of the way facts were presented inside the museum.
There’s a small section of the museum that talks about the Klan, its history, its violence against African-Americans. And it also has a robe that Davis helped authenticate for the museum.
Which is one of the things Preston touted as impressing him in the museum. The quality of the handmade robe from the early 20th century.
As Davis and Preston stand in front of the museum talking about lessons learned, or what they consider to be true history, it’s hard not to think this relationship makes little sense.
It is hard to not wonder if Davis is being taken for a fool. That Preston isn’t using him to help his sentence. Or at least to help massage his image. They both insist this is not the case.
For years Preston has been trying to re-brand the KKK as peaceful, Christian do-gooders. Not hate-filled racists.
He swears he doesn’t hate black people. And that not all KKK groups do.
“I have friends that are black, many of them” the wizard insists.
He admits some groups did “did have a history of terrorizing black folks, but not all Klans did.”
“I’ve never terrorized the black person in my life,” Preston says.
The less scary option
Still, he does use racist and homophobic slurs. He calls President Barack Obama a “Muslim Mongrel” and buys into the “birther” lie made popular by Donald Trump. While Trump finally admitted Obama was born in the United States, Preston still believes otherwise.
He says using the word n-word isn’t racist, it is meant to describe the worst of all races. He claims cross-burnings are merely cross-lightings to celebrate Jesus and not a symbol to inspire fear of death in black people. And yet this is a man that gives Davis hope.
In part, because to Davis, the man in a hood willing to have a conversation, is the less scary option.
“I’d rather see somebody in the robe than in a uniform or suit and tie who may feel the same way,” he says.
At least you know what you can expect with a KKK robe he says. The white shirts, the khakis of those white supremacists, the ones who go to high-powered jobs or have influence, that’s who he worries more about.
You can tell Preston and Davis are friends. Preston sings along as Davis tickles the ivories in his house. They laugh, they hug.
Preston begins telling a story about the symbolic meaning of the American flag. It’s based on an oft-repeated and inaccurate version of the events at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore and the endurance of the flag that led to the “Star Spangled Banner.” Preston chokes up talking about the soldiers who defended that flag. He begins wiping tears from his face.
Davis lets him tell the lengthy story, and then asks a question. If Preston is so moved and so respects a symbol of America like the flag, how can he not show that same reverence for the office of the presidency also a symbol, when speaking of Obama?
“You know, you’re right,” Preston says.
It’s a small win. It’s the moments Davis works for.
A wedding and a vow
Still, you cannot help but wonder what’s going on inside their heads as it’s happening. Why this imperial wizard of Confederate White Knights of the KKK is meeting with a black man. And why he asked him to be in his wedding.
It is nine days after the visit to the museum. Daryl Davis is standing at Richard Preston’s home clutching the arm of his soon to be bride Stacy Bell. Preston and Bell asked him to give away the bride after her father could not attend.
Davis and Bell stand side-by-side and link arms on the side of Preston’s home with white siding. Directly above the pair a Confederate flag hangs in the window. But it doesn’t faze Davis who is here for one reason.
“He’s my friend,” Davis explains.
Nobody knows what is in Preston’s heart. He may truly believe what he is saying, that he believes he isn’t violent. That he isn’t racist. But his words and actions scream otherwise. And while he may not be generally angry at or violent towards black people, he still hangs onto a version of fear many other white people in this country do: the browning of America, specifically immigration these days.
“I do not believe that illegals should be here and never have, OK? If you want to become an American citizen, I don’t care what culture you come from,” Preston says. “Don’t come over here to make money here, to send it back home, depleting our finances and creating a better life for your family back home when we have people here who were starving to death. We need to take care of our veterans. We needed to take care of our homeless. We needed to take care of the poor people of our country. OK? There are the things we need to focus on. All these illegals getting all this money handed to them is wrong.”
It’s an argument you hear often from people who fear losing power as this country becomes more and more diverse.
“When you’ve sat on that throne of power for hundreds of years and you see your throne legs being whittled down and now you’re being lowered down to the level of the people that you consider inferior, it’s really troubling and that’s why you find a lot of these groups stepping up their recruitment efforts,” Davis says. “And what they do is they use a legitimate topic in order to lure people in, the top of it being illegal immigration. That’s the browning of America.”
And it’s that view that many fear is emboldening white supremacists, separatists, KKK members and others. It sparks fears there will be a race war, that’s one thing Davis and Preston actually both agree on. This division between races will get worse before it gets better.
But will Preston’s mind ever change? Even if there is genuinely no hatred, he still stands strongly by the Klan name. He says he may someday give up the title of imperial wizard and retire, but he will keep working until then to better the Klan.
“I want to see the Klan become what it once was not what it became,” he says.
And he says matter-of-factly, he will not give up his Klan robe to Davis as others have.
“I’ll be buried in it.”