ANDREW DENTON: In ’79, I think you would have been about 22, you went to a radio debate with the Reverend Wade Watts…Reverend Wade Watts…who was the state leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People who’d worked with Martin Luther King. And when you got to this debate, he held out his hand for you to shake.
JOHNNY LEE CLARY: Yes, yes he did.
ANDREW DENTON: Did you hesitate?
JOHNNY LEE CLARY: I, I, he caught me off guard. See, I’m expecting this black militant to come in with a great big afro this big and an African dashiki on, with bones hanging around and a button on that says, “I hate honkies” and “Death to crackers,” you know? All that stuff. And I figured he’d have on…
ANDREW DENTON: You seriously thought that?
JOHNNY LEE CLARY: Yeah, that’s what I thought. And I thought he’d come in there with a boom box, blaring out the theme from ‘Shaft’. And I figured he’d flash a switchblade at me and go “Black is beautiful, honky. I’m gonna kill all you white devils.” You know, that’s what I thought I was gonna see. So when the door opened up and in came Reverend Wade Watts and he’s wearing a suit and a tie and he’s carrying a Bible. And he walks up and puts his hand out and goes, “Hello there, Mr Clary. I’m Reverend Wade Watts. I just want to tell you I love you and Jesus loves you.” And I mean, I’m shocked, you know. And he puts his hand out and I’m shaking his hand without thinking, ’cause this was not what I was expecting. And then I realised I’d just broke a Klan rule and I jerked my hand back, you know. And I started looking at my hand, which he saw that and that was meant as an insult. The Klan rule book says, “The physical touch of a non-white is pollution.” And I thought, “I just shook hands with a black person.” And he sees me looking at my hand and he goes, “Don’t worry, Johnny. It don’t come off.” And, you know, I start calling him names, and go, “You no-good, sorry, bleep, bleep, bleep. You mother-this, you this, you that.” And he looked at me and goes, “God bless you, Johnny. You can’t do enough to me to make me hate you. I’m gonna love you and I’m gonna pray for you, whether you like it or not.” And I didn’t know how to deal with that. I had never had that happen to me before.
ANDREW DENTON: A few years later, you burnt down his church, didn’t you?
JOHNNY LEE CLARY: Set fire to his church. What happened was we started off going by his house, calling him names, we got no response. Threw trash all over his lawn, got no response. We showed up with our sheets and hoods and stood out there in his yard, saying, “Get on out here, boy, we got something for you.” And he comes outside and he goes, “Boys, Halloween’s four more months away. I got no trick or treat in here for you. Come back in October.” And he goes back in the house.
ANDREW DENTON: That’s a brave man.
JOHNNY LEE CLARY: Yeah. And, I mean, I didn’t know how to deal with this. And so the Klan goes, “You got anymore bright ideas?” And I said, “I don’t know.” I said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do.” So we burned a cross across the street from his house. He came outside and asked us if we needed hotdogs or marshmallows for our barbeque, you know. So finally, I said, “I’m tired of messing with him” and we set fire to his church. And they put the fire out before the church was destroyed and I remember I called him up and disguised my voice and I said, “Hey, boy, you’d better be afraid. We’re coming to get you, boy. You don’t know who we are but we know who you are.” And he goes, “Hello, Johnny.” And he goes, “A man like you takes the time to call me, I’m so honoured.” And all that stuff. He goes, “Let me do something to you. Dear Lord, please forgive Johnny for being so stupid. He doesn’t mean to be so ornery, he’s a good boy trying to get out somewhere in there.” And I hung up the phone on him and I said, “How dare him?”
And so, the funniest thing that happened with him, though, is, I didn’t know what to do and I was at my rope’s end. And one day we was watching him and he went into a restaurant, so we got a bunch of us together and about 30 of us went in there and surrounded him. And he had this chicken there on the table. And I walked up and I said, “Hey, boy, this restaurant’s for white people only, we don’t want you here.” I said, “So, I’m gonna make you a promise.” I said, “I promise you we’re gonna do the same thing to you that you do to that chicken. So you think real hard before you touch that chicken.” So he looked at me and looked at the Klan, then he picked up the chicken and he kissed it. And when he kissed the chicken, the whole restaurant acted just like y’all did. They all started laughing and everything. And I looked up and even the Klan was laughing. “You gotta admit, that was funny.” I said, “Every one of you, outside.” I’m outside and they’re doubled over, laughing. I’m going, “You guys are gonna get suspended and lose your robe for two weeks.” I said, “I’m getting tired of this.” And I’m hollering at them and yelling and they’re laughing. I heard a horn honking and Reverend Watts is driving off, going, “Bye, Johnny.” And that’s how he chose… That’s how one old black – we never bothered him again – and that’s how one old black man defeated the entire Ku Klux Klan. Because he used this (Johnny points to his head) instead of brawn.
ANDREW DENTON: And he used this too (Andrew points to his heart). A very brave man.
JOHNNY LEE CLARY: His heart.