Words by Steve Gerkin.
Dressed only in his boxers, Wade Watts, a black civil rights activist, reclined on the sofa. He read the morning paper while bacon, eggs, and pork sausage sizzled in the kitchen. The cook leaned into the living room doorway.
“Do you think your friend Martin Luther King, who dreamt that one day blacks and whites could come together, ever imagined it might include us?”
Johnny Lee Clary, former Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, returned to the stove.
From the other room, Watts, an evangelist and longtime leader of the NAACP, shouted his answer.
“No,” he said, “I don’t believe the dream would have gone that far. But don’t burn this couch after I leave, honky!”
A few years earlier, that may have been a possibility. While Johnny Lee was the Grand Dragon of the Oklahoma Klan, the Klan set fire to Watts’ church, nearly burning it to the ground.
As the Grand Dragon of Oklahoma, Clary launched an all-out campaign of retribution against the disciple of love, the Reverend Watts. During a late-1970s radio debate in Oklahoma City, Watts tormented Clary, citing scripture and sprinkling his rebuttals with “Jesus loves you.” Embarrassed Klan protégées listened to the destruction of Johnny Lee.
Wade Watts was born in the hills of Kiamichi, southeast Oklahoma, in 1919. Indoctrinated into the teachings of the Baptist church at a young age, he committed his life to Christian ideals. At 17, Watts joined the NAACP. The organization elected him the state president in 1968, a position he held for 16 years. His respect within the civil rights community escalated as he fought for the desegregation of public facilities and institutions during the 1940s and 1950s. His work with Justice Thurgood Marshall paved the way for a Supreme Court decision to allow admittance of a black woman, Ada Lois Sipuel, to the University of Oklahoma law school in 1949. Even then, she was required to sit alone in class in a chair marked “colored.” She ate in a section of the cafeteria cordoned off by a chain so she could not mix with white students.
Watts fought hard within Oklahoma to ensure that blacks received equal educational opportunities through segregation in the public school system. His efforts benefited his nephew Julius Caesar Watts, who was educated in the newly integrated schools in Eufaula. J. C., as he was known, became a national-class quarterback for the University of Oklahoma, and he was free to saunter the campus unencumbered by racial boundaries.
In 1965, Wade Watts marched with his good friend Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, to demonstrate for racial freedom, justice, and equality. President Lyndon Johnson appointed Watts to the Civil Rights Commission. Within his home state, he served on the Human Rights Commission while maintaining his day job as labor inspector for the Oklahoma State Labor Commission. His passion for racial acceptance started at an early age—after his first exposure to hate.
As a young boy, Wade played with a white companion who invited him home for lunch. He was not allowed to sit at the table; instead, he was led to the back porch, where the mother handed him a bowl of food. The family dog became incensed with Wade, barking and trying to bite him. His friend explained that the dog was mad because Wade was eating out of his dish. This would not be the last time a plate of food reminded him of racial discrimination.
In the late 1950s, Watts and his good friend, the powerful Oklahoma State Senator Gene Stipe, entered an Ada cafe for lunch. The waitress stopped them, saying, “We don’t serve Negroes.” Watts responded, “I don’t eat Negroes. I just came to get some ham and eggs.” Leaving the establishment, Stipes asked Watts: If God would grant you one wish, what would it be? The senator anticipated his companion might answer no more hate in the world. Without hesitation, Watts said he wanted to meet the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
* * *
In a small San Francisco suburb, during this time, Johnny Lee Clary was born into a hate-mongering environment. Soon after his birth, the Clary family returned to their small, central Oklahoma hometown of Del City—a predominately white city. His bigoted daddy continued his hard-working ways, while his alcoholic mother strayed with multiple lovers. Johnny Lee’s dad, also, taught him those were not “chocolate-covered” men but “niggers.” Clary’s uncle, Harold, bragged he shot a black man for crossing his yard and only got fined for firing a gun within the city limits.
At age 11, Johnny walked into the house and witnessed his father’s suicide. Just as Johnny screamed, “Don’t do it,” Dad put a .45-caliber slug into his head. Mom quickly moved in with her boyfriend, who beat the traumatized youngster, which prompted Johnny to complain to the police. After law enforcement threatened the couple with jail, the boyfriend delivered an ultimatum: Johnny or him.
His mother kicked young Clary out of the house. The tough kid ended up with an older sister in gang-laden Los Angeles, where the beatings continued at the hand of her lover. A despondent Johnny Lee Clary desperately wanted a family that wanted him.
Watching TV one afternoon, Clary found it. The interviewer was questioning David Duke, the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Recalling Uncle Harold’s story, Clary contacted the Klan. An emissary of Duke knocked on his door several weeks later.
The KKK recruiter told him the Klan was a family with a spiritual basis and took him to weekly meetings where people who wanted to hear what he had to say surrounded the teenager. He diligently studied the Klan. He trembled with excitement the day he was officially inducted. Clary was 14. With his new support system's guidance, he had learned how to hate.
Clary ascended the Klan ranks quickly. He went from David Duke’s bodyguard to an overly ambitious Kleagle (or recruiter) in Del City to the leader of the Oklahoma Klan as the Grand Dragon at the not-so-tender age of 21. Clary was on the career path he desired—to become Imperial Wizard of the KKK. His physicality would bring him other successes.
In 1979, an Oklahoma City radio host invited Clary to participate in an on-air debate with a black man. Licking his chops at “a chance to put a black man in his place,” Grand Dragon Clary jumped at the chance to spread the gospel of hate. Clary told all his buddies to tune in. His debate opponent was the Reverend Wade Watts, veteran pastor of the Jerusalem Baptist Church in McAlester, Oklahoma.
As the two approached each other for the 1979 broadcast, Clary was shocked.
“He caught me off guard,” Clary told an Australian TV host. “I’m expecting this black militant to come in with a great big Afro this big (gestures), and an African dashiki on, with bones around and a button on that says ‘I hate honkies’ and ‘Death to crackers.’ ” But, what he saw was a well-groomed man in a suit and tie, carrying a Bible.
Watts put out his hand and the confused Clary took it, only to withdraw it quickly after the first touch. He had just broken a cardinal Klan rule. The Reverend saw Clary looking at his hand and reassured him, “Don’t worry, Johnny. It won’t come off.”
Clary started calling him a string of epithets. “I just want to tell you I love you and Jesus loves you,” Watts replied.
The on-air back and forth featured Clary spouting off about how the races should not interact, while the reverend calmly quoted scripture. Clary was reduced to mumbling generic Klan slogans.
“I’m not listening to anymore,” Clary snarled, storming out.
Holding a baby in his arms, the Reverend approached the Grand Dragon, who was hurriedly gathering up his belongings in the lobby. Wade introduced his 14th child, an adopted baby girl, born to a young white girl and a black teenage boy.
“Mr. Clary, this is my daughter, Tia.” As he held out the little girl with shining black eyes and skin, showering Johnny Lee with a sweet smile, Watts said, “You say you hate all black people. Just tell me, how can you hate this child?”
The Dragon nearly ran for the door. Watt’s final words rang out like church bells: “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.”
The embarrassment caused Clary to turn up the heat on Watts. But intimidating phone calls, crosses burning at his home, and garbage strewn in his front yard failed to curb Watts’ public quest for equality. The Reverend joined up with politicians to outlaw the Klan’s racist telemarketing hotlines that recruited for the Klan: “Save the land, join the Klan.” Johnny Lee was incensed.
Sporting KKK t-shirts, 30 Klansmen, led by Clary, followed Watts into a McAlester lunch spot. Surrounding him and his plate of fried chicken, Clary chortled, “Hey, boy, I’m gonna make you a promise. We are going to do the same thing to you that you do to that chicken.”
Watts surveyed the Klan before picking up a piece of chicken and kissing it. The room erupted with laughter, but Clary was livid.
Clary’s robed friends set fire to the Jerusalem Baptist Church. The fire was extinguished before the building was destroyed, but Clary felt like gloating, so he called Wade, using a disguised voice. Watts greeted him cordially, saying, “Well, hello, Johnny.” He continued, “A man like you takes the time to call me. Let me do something for you.” He begins to pray, “Dear Lord, please, forgive Johnny for being so stupid.” Then he invited all of them to dinner at Pete’s Place in Krebs.
The Klan decided to leave him alone. For more than a decade, Clary lived in Tulsa near 71st and Lewis. He was a drinker, a fighter, and a womanizer; yet, he never forgot the image of little Tia, and he never forgot the impact of his grandma in Del City praying constantly for him to quit the Klan and find the Lord. He admired Jimmy Swaggart and would smoke cigarettes while listening to Brother Swaggart go on and on about forgiveness. And Tia, who was the illegitimate daughter of a teenage J.C. Watts, sneaked into his consciousness regularly.
In 1989, Johnny Lee had reached his Klan goal. He became the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan—the hate and white supremacy leaders of the world. Yet, there were serious divisions with the Klan. The feds trailed his every move. His girlfriend was unveiled as an FBI informant and the Klan pulled guns on Clary claiming he was untrustworthy. Clary pointed his gun at them and backed out of the room.
The Klan was not the family he thought it might be; rather, it was full of internal hate and mistrust. Like his father before him, Clary picked up his gun, intending to end his life. A ray of sun shone through the blinds and onto his Bible. Setting his gun down, he opened the holy book and read for hours.
Imperial Wizard Johnny Lee Clary quit the Klan after six months of failure. His effort to unite all the hate groups—skinheads, neo-Nazis, Aryan Nation—as a common entity ended in FBI phone tapping, arrests, and brothers of hate turning on each other. He burned his robe in the backyard, feeling that “1,000 pounds” had been removed from his shoulders. He joined Billy Joe Daugherty’s Victory Christian Church across from Oral Roberts University and steadfastly immersed himself in Christian education. After two years, he called Reverend Watts.
Clary told him that he had a calling to preach, and Watts invited him to give his first sermon at his rebuilt church. Half of the congregation boycotted his service. When Johnny Lee made the altar call for anyone wanting to turn their life over to Jesus, a 14-year-old black girl came running down the aisle. More followed. As Johnny and the young girl passed Reverend Watts, there were tears staining the elder’s face.
“Johnny, you are leading Tia to the Lord,” Wade whispered. Three other Watts children joined them at the altar. The former Imperial Wizard brought the last of Watt’s 14 children into the house of the Lord. Watts and Clary became evangelical preachers that drove across the country together. Driving through Arkansas, Clary turned to Watts and asked if he ever thought the two of them would be driving in the same car on their way to save some souls. Wade looked at him, and quipped quickly, “I figured if we were ever in the same car together, you would have me in the trunk.” But their relationship was on borrowed time.
Reverend Wade Watts passed in 1998. He is buried in McIntosh County, Oklahoma, beneath his tombstone that reads, “I’d give up silver and gold to have it said that I helped someone.”
The Reverend Johnny Lee Clary is with the World Evangelism Fellowship and preaches for Jimmy Swaggart Ministries in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he often reminds his international TV audience that Wade Watts preached, “If you want to make beautiful music, you got to use those black and white keys together.”
In the end, they enjoyed seven good years of harmony.
The grave of Wade Watts.
1. While he was the Grand Dragon of Oklahoma, Clary became a professional wrestler. He called himself “Johnny Angel” and won the Arkansas Heavyweight title several times in the late 1980s. His final pro match was a win in Grove, Oklahoma, during a 10-Man Battle Royal in 1988. Still, the Klan was his oyster.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 16. Aug. 15, 2013.