The Redemption of Ku Klux Klan Leader Johnny Lee Clary #Watwb - GODYEARS

The Redemption of Ku Klux Klan Leader Johnny Lee Clary #Watwb

August 25, 2017

History has never been kind to African Americans but even within that narrow field, the hate mongering and vile assaults by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) were the stuff of nightmare. The KKK were (and still remain) a domestic terrorist group whose sole purpose was eradicating the freed slaves following the Civil War.

But I want to talk to you about two people: one of the heads of the Ku Klux Klan Johnny Lee Clary and the man he despised for so many years, Reverend Wade Watts.

First Encounter: The Radio Debate


In 1979, when Imperial Wizard (equivalent to being a national leader of the Ku Klux Klan) Johnny Lee Clary met Wade Watts at a radio station for a debate on racism, his first gesture set the tone for what was to come. He withdrew his hand after accidentally shaking the hand of Watts recalling the Klan rule that 'physical touch of a non-white is pollution.' Instead of being insulted, the Reverend laughed and consoled him saying 'he need not worry as his black wouldn't come off.'

The debate was filled with slurs and insults heaped upon Wade by Clary. And through it all, Wade smiled and said 'Jesus loves you.' When Johnny could take no more, he stood to leave. Wade stopped him before he left the station and showed him a baby abandoned by a black teenage boy and a white girl. The Reverend had adopted the baby as his own and to Johnny he asked,"You say you hate all black people. Tell me, how can you hate this child?"

The Reverend's final words to the Klan leader who ran out the door that day was 'God Bless you, Johnny.  You can't do enough to me to make me hate you. I'm gonna love you and I will pray for you whether you like it or not.'

Reverend Wade Watts to KKK Imperial Wizard Johny Lee Clary - You can't do enough to me to make me hate you. I'm gonna love you and I will pray for you whether you like it or not.'

Waves after Wave of Hatred

Angry at being embarrassed on national radio, KKK leader Johnny Lee Clary responded the only way he knew how. Along with the Klan, Johnny would drive by Wade's house, throwing garbage all over his lawn and showering death threats. When Wade did not take the bait, Johny upped the ante.

Dressed in their iconic ceremonial robes, the KKK came to the Reverend's doorstep one night with flaming torches and dared him to come out to meet them. Reverend Wade calmly opened the door, stared at these masked men in robes and simply said 'Boys. Halloween is 4 months away. I don't have any trick-or-treats for you. Come back in October.' before calmly closing the door on their stunned faces.

At a loss, the Klan asked Johnny what he wanted to do next. So a few nights later, they made a huge cross and set it on fire outside the Reverend's window, another of the most iconic fear-inducing tactics associated with the KKK. The Reverend once more came out and this time asked them if they wanted hot dogs and marshmallows for their barbecue.

Stunned by his inability to ruffle Wade, the Klan went a step further. Johnny burnt down Wade's church. As the fire was being put out by law enforcement, Johnny called up and said in a muffled voice "Hey boy. You better be afraid. We are coming to get you. You don't know who we are but we know who you are." Before he could finish his threat, the Reverend replied, "Hello Johnny. A man like you takes the time to call me. I am so honoured. Let me do something for you." And then he started to pray to the Lord to forgive the Imperial Wizard who had just burned his church down.

The Chicken Incident

At this point, Johnny was confused but he was not ready to give up his hatred for African Americans or the Reverend in particular. One day, when they saw Wade go to a restaurant, 30 members of the Klan entered and surrounded his table. Johnny told Wade "Boy, this restaurant is for white folk only, not your kind. So I am going to make you a promise." Pointing to the chicken on the Reverend's plate, he said,"I am going to do the same thing to you that you do to the chicken. So you think real hard before you touch that chicken."

Reverend Wade Watts looked at the chicken, then the thirty men surrounding him and finally at his long standing nemesis Johnny. He then picked up the chicken and kissed it.

Everyone watching in the restaurant burst out laughing, including to Johnny's chagrin, his own Klan members. Unable to control their laughter, Johnny hurdled them out of the restaurant as the Reverend continued with his meal. That day, the Klan stopped harassing the Reverend.

Redemption

In the years that followed, Johny found his disillusionment with the Klan growing as he grew tired of hate. At the back of his mind, he remembered one old black man who had defeated his Klan, simply because the latter used his heart to stand up to their brawn. He wanted to make amends and help share love instead of the hate he had been spreading. He burned his coveted Klan robe in the backyard and left the Klan, resurfacing two years later as a preacher.

When the time came, he returned to his town but found none ready to accept him in his new robes. So Johnny turned to the only person in his surroundings capable of helping him - Reverend Wade Watts. The Reverend welcomed his old nemesis with open arms and so it came to be that Johnny Lee Clary gave his first sermon in the very same church (now rebuilt) that he had burned down years ago, a lone white man now standing in front of a crowd of annoyed black men and women.

That day in the church, with Wade by his side, Johnny won back the community with his heartfelt talk of finding himself. When Johnny made the altar call for anyone wanting to turn over their life to Jesus, among those children who stepped forward was a 14 year old girl. When Johnny noticed the Reverend crying and inquired about it, Wade pointed out that this girl - Tia - was the same adopted baby of the Reverend who Johnny had first turned his back on at the radio station years ago.  

Children-are-not-born-racist-Johnny-Lee-Clary-evangelist-KKK

Wade and Johnny would go on to become best friends. 

Wade mentored him on his new journey finding peace and even made Johnny the godfather of Tia. The two often went on the road together as evangelical preachers, spreading love and even holding rallies of their own in cities where they knew the Klan was gathering.

Their time together as friends was short though. When Reverend Watts passed away a few years later in 1998, Johnny, now an ordained minister and evangelist, gave the eulogy. As he went to shut the lid on the Reverend's casket, he fulfilled a promise he had made years ago in a restaurant standing over a plate of chicken: he kissed his friend on the forehead as he bade him goodbye.  

Johnny continued the good fight as a civil rights activist till the day he died in 2014, preaching love and talking about racism on many talk shows and platforms.

Why I want you to remember the real life story of Reverend Wade Watts and Johnny Lee Clary


Reverend Watts represented everything the Klan hated. And they were hellbent on destroying him. Yet, the jovial man beat the feared Ku Klux Klan without ever raising his hand against them. He beat them with forgiveness and humour.

In his ideals, he reminds me of the quote from his own close friend Martin Luther King Jr.

Quote - Martin Luther King Jr  Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. 
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.


You can listen to Johnny Lee Clary tell his version here in his TED talk. I sincerely hope you take the time out to come back and listen to this amazing video of their friendship, filled with so many moving anecdotes.





There is a lot more kindness where that came from. 
I have compiled over 30 heroes of kindness and compassion this year. You can find the list here



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52 comments

  1. That's a wonderful story for these times. Thank you for sharing and helping to lead the August #WATWB

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    1. Thank you Mary. I loved the story when I came across it

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  2. What an amazing story that speaks so much truth: love never loses. I cried as I read this, reading such a great reminder that even a KKK leader is not beyond redemption. Hatred is exhausting. His weariness of it ultimately led to the new life of a 14-year-old girl, and I'm sure many others.

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    1. exactly... I think 'weariness' plays a big role here. How long can you hate before it consumes you

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  3. So apt in this environment of hate.

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  4. What a wonderful story Roshan and your list of inspiring people is fabulous.

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    1. Thank you. It is a list I really am proud of.

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  5. This is my favorite #WATWB post today. Hands down.

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    1. Thank you. That meant a lot. I was in two minds whether to share it cos it crossed the word limit.

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  6. Thank you - this is an extraordinary and very moving story. I WILL go back and watch the TED talk. Rev. Watts was a man among men which thankfully Johnny Lee Clary came to realise ...

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    1. I hope you do... its a wonderful talk from someone you thought you would hate.

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  7. What an incredible and inspiring story that fills me such hope. Thanks for sharing this one, and thanks for co-hosting #WATWB. This is always my favorite Friday of the month.

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  8. Thank you Roshan for the inspiring wonderful story and for co-hosing #WATWB

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    1. I missed out on hosting this time since I was traveling. Glad you liked the story

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  9. Thank you for this. It takes no short amount of courage to turn one's back on one's beliefs, especially that strong as KKK. I would think all his friends & family shared those beliefs so Johnny had to break with them, too. He was lucky to have an unlikely friend like that! Great story.

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    1. It hurts me personally to see the KKK back. This is the story needed to counter that resurgence.

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  10. Fabulous story. Thank you!

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  11. All those filled with hate, need to encounter true love. But it is so hard to find love within ourselves for those with so much hate.

    At such times, I remind myself that those who are the hardest to love, need it the most.

    Such a beautiful, timely, relevant story, Roshan. This is absolutely apt for the WATWB-- I'm not sure why you had even a smidgeon of second thoughts on it. It is full of light.

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    1. I mentioned my misgivings - the length of the post, how it did not fit our format. yet, I wanted to showcase this story really badly too.

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  12. Hi Roshan - Revd. Watts was certainly an amazing man and what control he had over his own emotions ... incredible he was able to bring Johnny into the fold - loved reading their stories and the redemption. Thank you - Hilary

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    1. Thank you Hilary... and yes, seems incredible how he managed to undo so much hate with kindness.

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  13. This is a fantastic story, one which is so relevant for the times we live in. I'll return later, after I've completed my rounds, to watch the TED talk.

    In any given country the idea of race is installed into culture making it a sensitive topic...yet a universal issue.
    As a South African living in a post-apartheid era, we still grapple with this issue on a daily basis. The topic is as prevalent now, as it was decades ago. And it doesn't seem to be getting any better.
    Why does it never go away? Why is there this racial discrimination between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’?
    Maybe because it’s easier to divide, than it is to share social power to fix the problem? Humans taking the easy way out? Truly empathizing, like a normal human, would mean we have to see "their" issues as just as valid as our own. Because they are. At the end of the day, we’re all the same. All human.
    Just some thoughts...
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story, Roshan.

    Writer In Transit

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    1. The points you raise sadly ring so true... and its worse now than it has ever been in decades. Common sense dictates we are the same yet everyone just twists things to go hate one another.

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  14. I had heard this story a while ago but forgotten it. A wonderful example of how knowledge and familiarity can make it difficult to hate. Once fear is out of the picture, it's a much different picture indeed. Thanks for this reminder!

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    1. I came across this story while searching for an inspiring tale and it truly won me over.

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  15. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I read this. What unbelievable courage on the parts of both these men. What strength. If only there were more people like this in our world.

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    1. I fear in todays world, the haters would have struck down Rev Watts a long time ago. What does it say about us that we are worse today than the KKK?

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  16. Though a lengthy post, it's worth a read. Iam amazed to read that there were people in this world like Wade who has a mountain of patience.

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    1. The length worried me too but I did not want to leave out most aspects of this story

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  17. Powerful post and video, Dr. Roshan. I do not believe anyone is beyond hope and this story certainly is a great example of a racist changing his heart and life. No one will ever know how many people he has helped become less intolerant with his public speaking but I hope it is tons. Thank you for sharing this for the WATWB!

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    1. I feel this counts as a major tale of redemption even by normal standards... a KKK leader turning it all the way around... and that too because of the love of an African American he hated.

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  18. Thank you for this wonderful article. This made my day. It is so good to know that even in the darkest hearts the light of compassion, love and friendship can ignite a world of goodness.

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    1. Glad you liked it Adel. The moment I came across it, I knew I had to have it in my list

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  19. Wow, what a powerful story and so relevant at this moment, one of my favs so far! Thank you so much for sharing this and being part of #WATWB! :)

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  20. Thank you for sharing this. At times it may be impossible to believe, and so hard to remember, but redemption *is* possible. Beautiful story for the #WATWB.
    Guilie @ Quiet Laughter

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    1. I know what you mean about how hard it is to believe in this day and age... but it does happen.

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  21. I love it when people wake up. It's hard to do, but it's always worth it.

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  22. A wonderul story but difficult one.Hate is destroying so much all over the world .Forgiveness cannot be a guarantee in these times.But hope is always there.Loved this

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    1. in today's world especially, its hard to believe we are still capable of such redemption when faced with the one we hate

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  23. What an amazing and inspiring story. Love and kindness truly conquers all. Thanks for sharing, Roshan!

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  24. This post, images and video included, show that change can happen, that love conquers, and therefore, there is hope for the future. Thank you for sharing this story and for being a part of #WATWB

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  25. This is such a wonderful story. I saw it when you first shared it and meant to come back to it but forgot. Managed to do it now. And I'm glad I did. That a person like this could actually exist is difficult to believe.

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    1. exactly... this is not something we see in present day India, sadly. Where a lifetime of hate gives rise to love

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  26. Roshan, this is an incredibly moving story. As for the word limit, the story is so gripping we hardly notice. It's your job to treat patients and is certainly part of mine to pray. Each day I pray that those who seek to perpetuate terror may be healed or whatever it is that makes them want to hurt. When I read posts like this I feel is if something is happening. You heal more than people's bodies. Thanks Simon’s Still Stanza #WATWB

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