Oct 29, 2014

Johnny Lee Clary, 1959 - 2014

Johnny Lee Clary, a Ku Klux Klan leader who rejected racism and became a pentecostal evangelist in an African-American church, has died at the age of 55.

"Even secular people are saying, 'What changed you?'" Clary said after being ordained in the Church of God in Christ in 2009. "I tell them, 'the only thing that changed me was the Word of God . . . I had to get my mind renewed and that was through God's Word.'"

Clary's testimony was that he grew up in a racist family in Oklahoma. His father taught him to shout racial epithets at African Americans from passing cars and his uncle bragged about killing a black man in Georgia and getting away with it. Clary was sent to a Baptist Sunday School, but that stopped when he was taught to sing, "Jesus loves the little children / all the little children of the world / red, yellow, black and white / they are precious in his sight / Jesus loves the little children of the world."

When he was 11, Clary's father committed suicided and his mother abandoned him. He went to live with his older sister in Los Angeles, a situation he invariably described as abusive. In the racial tumult of that city in the early 1970s, Clary discovered David Duke, the white supremacist who at the time was attracting attention for founding a new, modernized Klan. Clary joined. He was 14.

"This was the first time that anybody had ever encouraged me," Clary recalled in a 2005 interview. "I was the kid that nobody wanted. I was that rotten kid that was gonna end up in jail. And then all of the sudden, here's this Klansman telling me I'm gonna be a part of a society that's gonna treat me as a family member. And, man, that really got my attention, so that's why I joined."

Clary was an eager devotee of Duke's message and soon was back in Oklahoma, working as a Klan representative. Clary would attempt to exacerbate racial tensions in the state and use them to recruit new members.

At the age of 21, he became the Grand Dragon of the state's KKK.

By the end of the 1980s, he was Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Johnny Lee Clary was a rising Klan leader in the 1970s and '80s.

Clary may have exaggerated his role in the Klan and the Klan's role in the Ozarks and the deep South in the 1980s. The outsized reputation of the historical organization and disorganized, schismatic nature of the contemporary racist terrorist groups lends itself to exaggerations. It is not always clear what the significance of being a Grand Dragon or Imperial Wizard actually is, beyond a public identification as a quasi-professional racist. Klan organizations are also of course secret. Leaders have an incentive to overstate their membership and its influence. Groups that track Klan actives and reformed members who speak out against it also have their own incentives to overstate the Klan group's size and power. There is not a lot of independently verified information about Clary's time in the Klan.

He did set fire to a church, though.

According to Oklahoma journalist Steve Gerkin, when Clary was leader of the Oklahoma Klan he publicly feuded with Wade Watts, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and pastor of a black Baptist church in McAlester, Oklahoma. The two first met in an on-air radio debate in 1979. Clary was badly embarrassed by the encounter.

"Watts tormented Clary," Gerkin reported, "citing scripture and shrinking his rebuttals with 'Jesus loves you' . . . Clary was reduced to mumbling generic Klan slogans."

The encounter was followed by an escalating series of attempts to intimidate Watts, each thwarted by the minister's refusal to take the Klan activity seriously. When Clary and a group gathered in front of Watts' house one night in full Klan regalia, for example, the minister came out on the porch and told them to come back on Halloween. When they returned to burn a cross, Watts asked them if they wanted hotdogs or marshmallows for their barbecue.

Clary later said he made threatening phone calls to Watts' house, only to have Watts recognize his voice and pray for him. As Clary recalled, the prayer went, "Dear Lord, forgive Johnny for being so stupid. He doesn't mean to be ornery. There's a good boy in there somewhere trying to get out."

During this same period, Clary was working as a professional wrestler in the National Wrestling Association and National Wrestling Federation. Working under the name "Johnny Angel," his character was a "heel," a villain in the wrestling storylines. For a while he played a manager who would cheat and interfere in fights. His character was the antagonist of several more popular wrestling characters, including Wendi Richter and Sgt. Slaughter. It is said that he was effective enough villain that on several occasions he provoked the audience to riot.

Clary's conversion narrative would later follow the same arc as these wrestling performances, with good eventually triumphing over the evil heel of his own heart.

Clary retired from wrestling in 1988. He parlayed his small fame into a public leadership position in the Klan. He was made head of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a militant version of the racist group that had collapsed and almost ceased to exist. According to some estimates, there were only a few hundred members, mostly in Mississippi, at the time of Clary's ascension. He hoped to revive the group and unite multiple white supremacist organizations under his leadership. Following in the footsteps of David Duke, he made some appearances on national television and announced the "modernization" or the Klan.

The effort fell apart within a year. It was doomed by internal divisions among the various racist groups, which were wracked by deep paranoia and mutual suspicion. They were also under outside pressure from the FBI, who, according to Clary, were getting information from his girlfriend, who then disappeared into the Witness Protection program. There were accusations that Clary himself was an informant and though there was no evidence for that, the rumor of it was dangerous enough for the then-29-year-old racist.

Clary broke with the Klan in 1989.

As he told his story, he then sunk into a deep depression and considered taking his own life. His father had committed suicide and now it seemed like the right idea. As he was pointing a gun at his head, in one of the more dramatic versions Clary told, he saw a Bible. He put down the gun and picked up the book.

"There was a Bible sitting there," Clary told Pat Robertson's 700 Club in 2011. "I thought there is no possible way that the good Lord can forgive someone like me, because I had been so full of hate, and I had all that violence and lived such a bad life. But I looked. I looked at that Bible and it fell open to Luke chapter 15, the story of the prodigal son."

In another version, Clary said his suicidal thoughts were interrupted by a phone call offering him a job as a car salesman he had applied for sometime before. Clary went to work that same day, sold two cars, and interpreted it as a sign from God.

Clary joined Victory Christian Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a pentecostal megachurch connected to Oral Roberts University that advertised its multi-racial congregation.

"I saw all these people, red, yellow, black and white," Clary said, "and they were all standing around and worshiping God together and I almost turned and left. I'm not gonna insult your intelligence and tell you that I said one prayer and I got up and I said 'wow, I love everybody now and I don't hate anybody now' . . . . That's not what happened. I still had hate inside my heart."

After several years at the church, under the leadership of Billy Joe Daughtery, Clary began give his Christian testimony and preach about his conversion and how the Bible had "renewed his mind," freeing him from hate.

He started at the church he'd once set on fire.

Wade Watts told his congregation that Clary was like a modern day Apostle Paul. Once their persecutor, he was now their brother in the faith. At the same time, Watts told Cary he hadn't anticipated the Klan leader's conversion.

"I figured if were ever in the same car together," Watts said once as they traveled to preach at a church in Arkansas, "you would have me in the trunk."

Clary was attracted to pentecostalism in part by the legacy of Azusa Street, the interracial revival that brought the pentecostal movement to public attention in the early 20th century. He had also been a fan of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, watching Swaggart's TV show while he was wrestling and running Oklahoma Klan operations in the 1980s. After a time with Watts in Oklahoma, Clary and his wife Melissa affiliated with Swaggart's Family Worship Center in Baton Rouge, La.

Clary preached in pentecostal churches throughout the US.
Clary travelled extensively, sharing his testimony and speaking out against racism. He toured Australia with his message and became a regular fixture of pentecostal conferences and TV shows in the United States. He published a memoir with a small pentecostal press in 2001, titled Boy's in the Hoods. His story received wider attention after 2009, when he was ordained by George McKinney, a bishop of the Church of God in Christ.

Clary first connected Church of God in Christ during a Promise Keepers event in the early 1990s, a short time after his conversion. He approached them about ordination nearly two decades later. Though Clary at that point had worked as a pentecostal minister for a number of years, he believed an ordination in a black church would be significant.

Clary made multiple appearances on FOX News after the ordination, and was given the opportunity to share his message of Christ's transformative power from that very public platform.

"You cannot go to heaven and be a Christian and be a racist," Clary said. "If you can't get along with them here on earth, you won't be able to get along with them up in heaven. You cannot go around and say you're a Christian and hate you're brother 'cause it says in the Bible that any man who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar."

His most recent appearance on FOX was in July

He was preaching his message of the power of Christ up to a few weeks before he died. A Lafayette, La. church advertised Clary's guest sermon on Oct. 12 with the words, "Come hear former Imperial Wizard of the KKK who used to burn the cross, now Preaches the Cross."

Clary died of a heart attack on Oct. 21. His funeral was held at the Family Life Center on Oct. 28.

His wife Melissa shared on Clary's Facebook page that he was buried in a purple suitcoat. He used to joke that he was going to have a problem with the white robes in heaven, telling Jesus, "you do remember I got saved from wearing one kinda like this?"