McALESTER, Okla. (BP)–“Hello, brother.”
Not an unusual greeting for two Christians, but extremely unusual from a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard to a former NAACP president.
“My wife answered the phone when Johnny Lee Clary called to tell me he had surrendered to the ministry,” said Wade Watts, pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church, McAlester, Okla., and former state president of the NAACP.
“Handing me the phone, my wife whispered, ‘It’s that old Ku Klux Klansman,'” Watts recounted.
But when Clary said, “Hello, brother,” Watts said, “That sounded mighty strange to me” after all the years of harassing phone calls from Clary, who had risen to the top of the anti-black terrorist organization and had once set fire to Watts’ church building.
Clary said his prejudice toward blacks began when, at age 5, he saw a black man in front of a Del City, Okla., grocery store. “I thought he was a white man covered in chocolate,” said Clary, now 37. “But my dad told me he wasn’t a white man, but a ‘nigger.'”
From that time on, Clary’s father filled him with prejudice against blacks, coming home from work and telling his son racial jokes and slurs, planting the seed of hatred in the young boy.
At the same time, however, Clary’s dad made sure his son was in church at Carter Park Baptist Church in Del City every Sunday — sending him, not taking him.
As a result of attending church and having a Sunday school teacher who took an interest in him, Clary was saved when he was 9.
But trouble at home, including constant fights between his parents, his mother cheating on his father and alcoholism led to his father taking a .45-caliber pistol and blowing off the top of his head while the younger Clary watched.
Three weeks later his mother moved her boyfriend into the house.
“He told me my father, whom I idolized, was no good, and he started knocking me around,” Clary said.
When Clary reported his mother and her boyfriend to the police, she told him she didn’t care where he went, but to get out of the house. She put him on a bus and sent him to live with his sister and her abusive boyfriend in Long Beach, Calif.
Things eventually got so bad there that Clary, then 14, was thinking about committing suicide when he turned on the TV and saw David Duke, a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke was saying the kinds of things Clary’s father would say.
Clary wrote for information and was visited by a Klansman who found out what kind of life the youngster had led, and told him the Ku Klux Klan would be a family to him if he would join.
The man emphasized the Ku Klux Klan was a Christian organization, and Clary said he was a Christian, that he had accepted Jesus when he was 9.
“He started telling me things I didn’t understand,” Clary recalled. “What he was doing was twisting the Bible around.”
The man told Clary that God meant the races to be separate and never intended blacks and whites to live together on the same continent, Clary said.
Clary immediately joined the Klan and during the next 16 years worked his way up the ladder to the key Klan position of grand wizard.
Clary met Watts when the two debated on an Oklahoma City radio station in the late 1970s and Watts was a target of the Klan.
“I called Watts every name in the book,” Clary said. “And he would respond with ‘God bless you, son. Jesus loves you.'”
Watts’ wife and adopted half-black, half-white baby girl were waiting in the lobby of the radio station. As the men left, Watts turned to Clary and said, “‘Just look at this baby. How can you hate her?’ When I saw this baby, I didn’t see a black baby, nor did I see a white baby. I just saw a baby who needed love.”
Clary said when he looked into the baby’s eyes, “I knew I could never hate her.”
After only six months in the Klan’s top position of grand wizard, Clary said he knew something was missing.
“I thought I had arrived,” he said. “Once I got there, I thought I would be fulfilled.”
All his life, he said, it seemed Christians came across his path telling him he needed to get his life right and rededicate it to the Lord.
“Getting to the top cost me a marriage and a child,” Clary said. “Everything came crashing down around me. I was again to the point of thinking about taking my life.”
Clary emphasized the Klan had taken a dramatic turn that he didn’t like.
“When I joined, they always talked about Christianity and how they based their beliefs on the Bible,” Clary reflected. “That was a bunch of garbage. But when they started talking about a white revolution and starting race riots, I couldn’t go along with that philosophy.”
Clary said while he was thinking about taking his life, he looked over and saw a Bible laying on a table and remembered the happiest times in his life were the years he spent at Carter Park Baptist Church.
“I picked up the Bible and began looking at it, thinking I should pray and ask Jesus for forgiveness and rededicate my life to him,” Clary said. “I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that the first place I turned to was Luke 15, the story of the Prodigal Son. As I began to read, I realized that no matter what I had done, the Lord had never left me or forsaken me.”
Clary said when he got up off his knees after asking for forgiveness, “I felt like 1,000 pounds had been lifted off my shoulders.
“I wouldn’t tell you all the hate and prejudice left right then, because hatred is a learned response just like love is,” Clary explained. “I had to learn to do something I had never done. I had to get into God’s Word and find out what it has to say about love. I had to get my mind renewed.”
In 1991, God called Clary to preach.
“I asked the Lord what I should do, and he put it in my mind to call Wade Watts,” Clary said. “When I asked Watts if he remembered John Clary, he said, ‘Remember you, son? I’ve been praying for you for years.’
“I told him back in 1989, his prayers were answered,” Clary continued. “I resigned from the Klan and got my heart right with the Lord and decided to serve him the rest of my life.”
Clary told Watts the reason he was calling was because the Lord impressed him to call Watts and tell him he had surrendered to preach.
Watts inquired if he had preached anywhere yet and asked Clary to do him the honor of speaking for the first time in his all-black church.
When Clary asked how to get there, Watts replied, “You ought to know. You tried to burn it down!”
At the end of Clary’s first message in the McAlester church, a girl about 15 years old came down the aisle during the invitation, Clary said.
“She was crying and said she wanted to know this same Jesus I knew,” Clary said.
“Then I heard someone else crying, and saw Watts getting to his feet.
“‘Johnny Lee,’ he said. ‘You remember that little baby I showed you when we debated years ago at the radio station, and I asked you how you could hate the baby? Johnny Lee, that’s that baby!’
“I just froze,” Clary said. “I thought there was something familiar about those eyes.”
Watts has 13 children and only four of them had not been saved when Clary preached that morning. After “that baby” made her decision, the other three unsaved children came forward to make professions of faith.
“Rev. Watts hugged me and said, ‘Who would have ever believed God would take an old Ku Klux Klansman, have me pray for him all these years and he would come down here and lead my unsaved kids to the Lord?'” Clary said. “That day a friendship was born between two men who can truly call each other ‘brother.'”
McALESTER, Okla. (BP)–“Hello, brother.”