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From the Klan to the Pulpit

Transition: Encounter with a black minister forever changed the life and attitudes of a former KKK official.

June 15, 2002|CLAYTON BELLAMY | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

TULSA, Okla. — On a night in 1979, Ku Klux Klan leader Johnny Lee Clary patted his white sheet as he waited in a radio station for his debate opponent, a civil rights activist named the Rev. Wade Watts.

Clary expected Watts to hate whites as much as Clary hated blacks. But when Watts walked into the broadcast booth, he smiled and told Clary he loved him.

Clary, then the Klan's grand dragon, was stunned. He had set a fire that damaged Watts' church in McAlester, Okla.--a crime for which he was never prosecuted.

It was that night that Clary first began to doubt his racist convictions. In another decade, he left the Klan as imperial wizard and, a couple of years after that, he began his itinerant ministry against racism.

Clary now draws crowds around the world who come to hear his story of failure and redemption, of overcoming racism in one of its ugliest forms.

Clary credits much of his transformation to Watts, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and led the Oklahoma NAACP for 16 years. The men became close friends before Watts' death in 1998.

"He taught me what it was like to be black, what black people feel about the things they've been through," Clary said recently at his small Tulsa apartment, a poster of King behind him. "I became a man who looked at himself in the mirror and decided it was time to change that man."

Clary, who turns 43 this month, spent his early childhood in Oklahoma. When he was 11, his father committed suicide--shooting himself in the head with a pistol in front of his son. The boy was sent to Los Angeles to live with his sister.

Living in a gang-ridden L.A. neighborhood, mostly among youths from other races, Clary didn't fit in. Racism he had learned in Oklahoma--he remembers his father directing a racial slur at a black man when he was 5--became ingrained as Clary was shunted aside.

"Nobody seemed to care about this 14-year-old kid," he said. "I was about ready to give up when I turned on the TV and saw David Duke talking about the KKK."

The white supremacist's speech reminded Clary of talks his father had had with his uncle, a Klansman from Georgia. Clary wrote Duke, who sent a man to his Los Angeles door.

That Klansman wore a big belt buckle, glasses and a Western shirt. He reminded Clary of his father.

"You've been through a horrible life," Clary remembers the man telling him. "What you need is a family, and the words 'Ku Klux Klan' come from the Greek word kuklux, which means circle, and klan from Scotland, which means family."

Clary joined the Klan youth corps, becoming an adult member at 17 and quickly rising through the ranks. Returning to Oklahoma, he became the grand dragon there and later imperial wizard, a rank similar to national spokesman.

But after his encounter with Watts, Clary began to question his devotion to the KKK.

"When I heard the Klan and the skinheads say they wanted to kill all the blacks, I used to think of Rev. Watts and think, 'Do you really want to see this man hurt?' " Clary said. "He was such a good man that I started doubting all these things I was supposed to teach."

In 1989, Clary told the Klan's Grand Council he was quitting.

A few years later, Clary said he felt God calling on him to preach. He called Watts and asked forgiveness. Watts, in turn, asked him to deliver a sermon at his all-black church, the one that Clary had set ablaze.

When Clary went to the white, pillbox-shaped church in McAlester, he was too nervous to think about the last time he'd been there, he said. Watts, the uncle of Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), had warned his faithful the week before that the former KKK leader was coming. Many stayed home.

The worshipers in the worn wooden pews crossed their arms and stared at Clary with lowered brows, he said. He got no "hallelujahs" or "amens" when he told of his reformation.

Finally, he asked if anyone would like to know Jesus as their savior, and a teenage girl cried and ran to the pulpit to hug Clary. The ice was broken.

Soon afterward, Clary and Watts traveled across the South together, preaching against racism and protesting at Klan rallies.

"He became like family to us," said Betty Watts, the minister's widow. "He always came down [to McAlester] to tell us how much he loved us."

Clary believes his ministry, which he calls Operation Colorblind Inc., has helped thousands avoid or escape a life of racism.

"I hate looking back at the person that I used to be," said Clary, who is ordained by the International Charismatic Bible Ministries. "I would hate to live it all over again. But if it's the only way all these lives would be helped, then I'd do it."

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