OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–When Oklahoma State Sen. Gene Stipe and civil rights activist Wade Watts walked into a restaurant in the late 1950s, a waitress confronted them at the door and told Watts, an African American, that the restaurant did not serve Negroes.
With a smile, Watts replied, “I don’t eat Negroes. I just came to get some ham and eggs.”
Not amused, the waitress refused to seat Watts.
As the two Oklahomans walked out the door, Stipe turned to Watts and asked, “Wade, if God gave you one wish, what would that wish be?”
Watts was silent for a long time. He finally said, “Gene, if the Good Lord was to grant me one wish, I believe I’d wish to meet the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.”
A strange wish for a black man to want to meet someone who’s thrust was to create an all-white world.
But what happened after Watts got his wish was even stranger.
A ROUGH START
The story begins with a young boy named Johnny Lee Clary whose father filled him with prejudice against blacks.
The young Clary lived in an unstable home in Del City, Okla. — his father was an alcoholic, and his mother cheated on his father. Even worse, his father committed suicide in front of Clary, firing a .45-caliber pistol to his head. Later, abused by his stepfather, Clary was sent to live with his sister in California. Things were so bad there that Clary, then 14, was considering suicide. But his outlook changed after tuning in to a television program that had David Duke, grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, repeating the hate Clary had heard from his father.
Clary sent for information and was visited by a Klansman, who emphasized that the Klan was a Christian organization. This connected with Clary; he had accepted Jesus as his Savior as a boy of 9 at Carter Park Baptist Church in Del City but had not grown in his knowledge or relationship with Christ.
The Klansman told Clary that God meant the races to be separate and never intended blacks and whites to live together on the same continent. “What he was doing was twisting the Bible around,” Clary recalled. “But I immediately joined the Klan, and during the next 16 years worked my way up the ladder to the Klan’s top national position of grand wizard.”
Watts, who served for 16 years as leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Oklahoma, got his wish to meet the leader of the KKK when he debated Clary on an Oklahoma City radio station in the 1970s. Watts was a target of the Klan, and Clary said he called Watts “every name in the book,” but Watts always responded with “God bless you, son; Jesus loves you.”
Clary and Watts were leaving the radio station, when the Klansman met Watts’ wife and their half-black, half-white adopted baby girl in the lobby. “Watts turned to me and said, ‘Just look at this baby. How can you hate her?'”
“When I looked into that baby’s eyes,” Clary admitted, “I knew I could never hate her.”
Shortly thereafter, Clary began to feel that something was missing in his life. He began to realize the KKK talk about Christianity, their claims that their beliefs were based on the Bible, was “a bunch of garbage.”
“When they started talking about a white revolution and starting race riots, I knew I couldn’t go along with that philosophy,” he said.
Clary again reached a point of thinking about taking his life, but he had a life-changing encounter with the truth. He saw a Bible on a table and remembered the happiest times of 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 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 nor forsaken me.”
After praying 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.”
A CHANGED LIFE
In a miraculous turn of events, God called Clary to preach in 1991.
“I asked the Lord what I should do, and he put it in my mind to call Wade Watts,” Clary recounted.
“When I asked Watts if he remembered ‘John Clary’, he said, ‘Remember you, son? I’ve been praying for you for years.'”
Clary told Watts his prayers had been answered, how in 1989 he had resigned from the Klan and gotten his heart right with God, and how he had decided to serve the Lord the rest of his life.
Watts asked Clary if he had preached anywhere yet. When Clary said no, Watts invited Clary to do him the honor of preaching in Watts’ all-black church.
When he asked Watts for directions to the church, Clary said Watts replied, “You ought to know. You tried to burn it down!”
(The KKK targeted Watts’ church for burning, twice, because Watts spearheaded the civil rights movement in Oklahoma.)
“Watts loved all people,” Clary reflected. “His philosophy was if you want to play beautiful music, you have to play the white and black keys together. The Klan hated that because they believed in a separate society. Watts was powerful, and we thought by burning his church, making hate calls and threatening his family, we could shut him up. But it didn’t work. His voice was heard, just like the voice of freedom will always be heard.”
At the end of Clary’s first-ever sermon, a girl about 15 years old came down the aisle during the invitation at Watts’ McAlester, Okla., church.
“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 that 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 had 13 children and four of them still had not been saved when Clary came to preach that morning. After “that baby” made her decision, the other three unsaved children came forward to make professions of faith in Jesus.
“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.”
KEEPING THE DREAM ALIVE
On Dec. 16, 1998, Clary joined Sen. Gene Stipe and Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating in giving eulogies at the funeral of Watts, who had died three days earlier at the age of 79.
Hundreds of black people at the funeral gave Clary a standing ovation as he walked to the microphone, where he related a conversation he had with Watts the day before his death.
Clary recounted that Watts told him he had been a longtime friend of Martin Luther King Jr., and when King was killed, his friends said, “They killed the man, but they aren’t going to kill the dream. Dr. King had a dream that one day black children, white children, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Gentiles would all be able to join hands and sing ‘Free at Last.'”
Clary continued to share Watts’ last words: “After they killed Dr. King, we got together with other civil rights leaders to keep the dream alive. I did what I could. I called you here today because my evening sun is sinking fast, and this old race is done. I gotta go, but I couldn’t think of a better person to take this ministry than you. In the Bible, there was Elijah and Elisha. Elijah taught Elisha everything he knew, and when Elijah got ready to go, he passed it on to Elisha and Elisha went on to do even greater things than Elijah did. So I’m going to hand it to you.”
“He held out his hand which was shaking, and put it in my hand and said, ‘Johnny, I want you to promise me that you’ll keep the dream alive and promise you’ll fight racism until the setting of your sun.’ I squeezed his hand, looking down at the black hand and the white hand together, and I said, ‘I promise. I’ll keep it alive.'”
After Clary left the room, Watts’ daughters came in and found their father saying, “Thank you, sir, thank you.”
The daughters asked whom he was talking to, and Watts said, “I’m talking to Jesus. He was standing right here. He said, ‘Wade, the race is over. In my Father’s house are many mansions. I’ve gone and prepared a place for you that where I am you can be there too. I want you to say goodbye to your children. I’m coming back to get you tonight.'”
Just then a nurse walked into Watts’ room, asking what he wanted for breakfast the next day. Watts said, “Honey, it don’t matter what you bring me for breakfast. I won’t be here to eat it. I’m having breakfast with Jesus in the morning.”
With that, Watts closed his eyes.
The next morning, a message flashed across the screen on CNN News, “Former civil rights activist Wade Watts passes away at the age of 79.”