My parents were divorced 30 years ago. My mother never forgave my father for leaving, even though she was not happy while he was there! We were raised with the belief that if someone hurt you, you had a right to be (and stay) angry…forever. I saw my mother give people the “cold shoulder’ if she felt hurt by them…usually for not including her. The words, “You have a right to be angry!” would not have been out-of-place in our home. As I began my spiritual journey, I found forgiveness the hardest thing to do….I really didn’t even know how to begin to be open to it. But I knew that it was possible from the stories of others who had done it….big, brave stories of keeping hearts open in the face of impossible hatred. The story below is one of those. It is long but it’s worth the read. I have remembered it all of these years; remembered, when I felt wronged by someone, the path that Rev. Watts took, and the path that I want to take too.
THE DRAGON AND THE PREACHER (for a man who thrived on hatred, only love could save him) From Guideposts Magazine, September 1998:
by Johnny Lee Clary, Tulsa, Oklahoma
I first met Reverend Wade Watts when we were both asked to speak on a Tulsa radio program. He put out his hand and I stepped back, offended. I was the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma and he was the state president of the NAACP. There was no way you would find me shaking hands with him.
My training in hate began early. I was five years old when my father encouraged me to lean out our car window and shout racial slurs as we passed a bus stop. Daddy grinned and patted me on the back. “That’s my boy,” he said. When I was older I sat up late at night listening to stories my Uncle Harold told about shooting at black men who crossed his property. Daddy and Uncle Harold would howl with laughter.
My grandmother, though, read to me from the Bible and prayed for me. Once, I came home from Sunday school singing a song I had learned: “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world; Red and yellow, black and white, They are precious in his sight…”
“Don’t ever let me catch you singing words like that again!” Daddy’s voice thundered. That was the end of Sunday school for me.
One night when I was 11, I came home and found Daddy standing with a gun to his head. As I watched in horror, he pulled the trigger. After the funeral, Mama sent me to California to live with my older sister and her boyfriend. Lonely and confused, I spent a lot of time staring at the TV, and one day I saw a talk-show host interviewing David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Fascinated, I asked around about how to get in touch with the Klan, and before long a representative came to visit. “Son,” he said, “what you need is a real family — the Klan.”
Week after week he showed up to take me to meetings. Desperate to belong to something, at the age of 14 I joined as a full-fledged member. Eventually I became David Duke’s bodyguard, and by the time I was 20 I had become the Grand Dragon of Oklahoma.
I was a tireless recruiter for the Klan in Oklahoma, and it grew under my leadership. I was a fiery speaker, spreading the gospel of hate. That’s why when I was asked to speak at that particular radio station in Tulsa in 1979 I jumped at the chance. Only shortly before the program did I learn it would be a debate between the NAACP’s Reverend Wade Watts and myself. But I wasn’t worried. I looked forward to it — a chance to put a black man in his place.
So I refused to shake hands with the nicely dressed older gentleman carrying a worn Bible. But as I took in his strong, kind face and dignified manner, he reached out and shook my hand anyway. “Hello, Mr. Clary,” he said, “I’m Reverend Watts. Before we go in, I just want you to know that I love you and Jesus loves you.”
Our on-air debate went back and forth, me firing off reasons the races should never have anything to do with each other, and the reverend politely refuting everything I said and quoting Scripture. When he zeroed in on me with pointed questions about the beliefs I held, I could only mumble the generic slogans of the Klan. I became flustered by his calm. “I’m not listening to any more,” I snarled, storming out.
I gathered my things and was heading through the lobby when the reverend appeared. I would have gladly pushed him out of my way except that he was holding a baby in his arms. “Mr. Clary, this is my daughter Tia,” he said. “And I have one last question for you.” He held out a little girl with shining dark eyes and skin, and one of the sweetest expressions I had ever seen. “You say you hate all black people, Mr. Clary. Just tell me — how can you hate this child?”
Stunned, I turned and almost ran. I heard the reverend call after me: “I’m going to love you and pray for you, Mr. Clary, whether you like it or not!”
I didn’t like it. Over the next 10 years I had two burning goals. One was to climb the Klan’s national ranks to the position of Imperial Wizard. The second was to make Reverend Wade Watts pay for what he had done. I would make him hate me.
But as ferociously as the Oklahoma Klan continued its campaign, just as firmly Reverend Wade Watts worked for justice and equality. Klansmen barraged his family with threatening phone calls. His windows were broken; effigies were torched on his lawn. His church was burned to the ground. The 13 Watts children — a number of whom were adopted — were threatened and had to be escorted to school by the highway patrol. Once or twice I found myself thinking about that baby, little Tia. I drove the thought away with hate. Still, nothing the Klan did stopped the reverend, nothing shut him up. When he joined ranks with an Oklahoma senator to outlaw the telephone hot lines we used for recruiting, we called an emergency meeting. Klan members crowded around me as I dialed the Watts home.
“I want you to know we’re coming to get you,” I hissed when the reverend answered. “And this time we mean business…”
“Hello, Johnny Lee!” he said, as though hearing from a long-lost relative. “You don’t have to come for me, I’ll meet you. How about at a nice little restaurant I know out on Highway 270? I’m buying.”
“This isn’t a joke, old man. We’re coming over, and when we’re finished, you’ll wish you’d never crossed us.”
“This place has the best home cooking you ever tasted. Apple pie that’ll make you long for more. Fluffy mashed potatoes. Iced tea in mason jars….”
I slammed down the phone. “He wants to take us out to dinner,” I said in disbelief. “Talked about apple pie and iced tea.”
“The old man’s gone crazy,” someone said. “Let’s forget about him.”
We left Reverend Wade Watts alone after that. I turned my energies to solidifying my position in my “family,” and in 1989 I was appointed Imperial Wizard. I had just gone through a divorce and lost custody of my baby daughter, and in desperation I focused on a new goal. I wanted to unify all hate groups — from skinheads to neo-Nazis — under the umbrella of the Klan. I arranged a national meeting where those groups would meet, and, I hoped, unite in strength.
That was to be the culmination of my efforts. But on the day of the gathering, the Klan, skinheads and neo-Nazis all started fighting, accusing one another of stealing their members and mailing lists. By the time I arrived, my unity meeting was in shambles. As I looked out over the stormy proceedings, I realized: These groups wanted to “purify” the world and have it all be like them — but they hated one another. Did I really want to live in a world of people like that?
Were those the people I wanted to be my family? A family whose hate extended to all colors, backgrounds, and ages. Even babies like Reverend Wade Watts’s little daughter Tia. “How can you hate this child?” he had asked.
How far I had come from the days when I sang those words: “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world; Red and yellow, black and white, They are precious in his sight…”
Suddenly I was repulsed by the poison that swirled around me. I felt sick to my stomach. I turned in disgust and walked out the door. Eventually I told the other Klan officials I was giving up my position and leaving the group forever.
My life was a wreck. As the weeks passed, filled by a sense of shame and worthlessness, I fell into deep depression — and the stultifying numbness of alcohol. Then came the terrible day I found myself in my shabby apartment raising a loaded gun to my head. Daddy, I’m following in your footsteps. There’s no other way to go…
I was about to pull the trigger when I saw sunlight break through the partially closed blinds — and onto a Bible that lay gathering dust on my bookshelf, an old Bible like the one Reverend Wade Watts carried that day at the radio station. A Bible like the one Reverend Wade Watts carried that day at the radio station. A Bible like the one I had seen my grandmother read so many times. Maybe there is another way. I put down the gun and picked up the Bible. It fell open to Luke 15 — the parable of the prodigal son. I read the story three times, then fell on my knees and wept.
I quietly joined a church — whose congregation was multiracial — and kept a low profile, studying the Scriptures, getting grounded in God’s Word. Two years passed. And finally in 1991 I made a phone call I had to make. “Reverend Watts?” I asked when he picked up.
He knew my voice right away. “Hello, Johnny Lee,” he said warmly.
“Reverend Watts, I… I want you to know that I resigned from the KKK two years ago. I gave my heart to Jesus and I’m a member of an interracial church.”
“Praise the Lord!” he shouted, “I’ve never stopped praying for you! Would you do me the honor of speaking at my church?”
How can he forgive me? How could he have cared about me all those years?
Taking a leisurely stroll with Reverend Wade Watts, now confined to a wheelchair
When I stepped to the podium at his church and looked out over the congregation of mostly black faces, I told my story simply, not hiding from the past or sugarcoating the depth and bitterness of my involvement. Then I told them how God had changed all the hate in my heart to love.
There was silence when I finished. A teenage girl got to her feet and ran down the aisle toward me, arms open. I started to move in front of the altar, to pray with her. As I passed the reverend, I realized he was weeping. “Don’t you know who that is, Johnny Lee?” he asked quietly. “That’s Tia. That’s my baby.”
Yes, what I needed was a real family. And there had been one waiting to open its arms to me all along