History

The 12-Year-Old Girl Who Called David Duke to Challenge Him

Her gutsy conversation with the white supremacist helps explain our decision to not interview him for Slow Burn.

David Duke at a microphone in a suit and tie with campaign signs and balloons behind him
David Duke talks to his supporters in Metairie, Louisiana, on Jan. 22, 1989. Andrew J. Cohoon/AP

This article is adapted from “Cold Call,” a bonus episode of Slow Burn’s new season.

Jo-Anna Burnett is three years older than I am, and like me, she grew up in New Orleans. In 1989, when she was 12, she noticed that one particular story was dominating the local news. “I remember it was almost every single day there was coverage on this former Ku Klux Klansman who was running for office in an American city,” she told me.

Burnett was looking for a topic for her school’s social studies fair. When David Duke won his race for the state House of Representatives, she knew what she wanted to do.

I had just found his name and number in the White Pages. And, uh, I think I was surprised it was just right there.”

Burnett grabbed a tape recorder and her parents’ speakerphone and headed out to the garage. And then she started dialing. She tried the number several times, with no answer. After about 10 tries, somebody picked up.

“I’m like, oh, wow. Like, this is David Duke. Really, finally, OK. And then I just immediately start asking questions.” Duke immediately tried to parry them.

Burnett: How do you think you got elected?

Duke: I got elected because people believed and agreed with what I talked about.

Burnett: OK, but, OK. You say you’re not, like, you know, like a bigot anymore?

Duke: I never was a bigot, ma’am.

Burnett: OK, but you call yourself a racialist.

Duke: No, I don’t.

Burnett: Well …

Duke: I call myself a white civil rights activist because I believe in equal rights for everybody. That’s what I call myself. 

Burnett is Black, and she knew that Duke had been in the Ku Klux Klan. But she says she wasn’t afraid of him. “I think I was just still really puzzled and trying to understand, you know, this person’s type of thinking,” she said. Duke, in turn, wanted to get inside Burnett’s head. To do that, he needed to know whom he was talking to.

Burnett: Do you think that you should be removed from the Louisiana [Legislature]?

Duke: Well, of course not. I was elected legally. Wait, is this for a report? Or what’s this call about?

Burnett: Uhm, it’s for my social studies project.

Duke: Oh, OK. What school do you go to?

Burnett: Audubon Montessori.

Duke: Uh-huh. How old are you?

Burnett: 12.

Duke spoke in a calm, even tone. He told Burnett that he opposed “forced integration of education.” He said “the best qualified” people should get jobs and promotions and scholarships and that “racial discrimination goes on today in America against white people in those areas.”

When Burnett asked if he’d really changed since leaving the Klan, he turned the question back around.

Well, I think that we all change, and I think that we all grow. And I think that my statements have been recorded and photographed,” he said. “I’m sure there are some things in your life that maybe you’d change if you could, that you’ve done, whether to individuals or, you know, to parents or teachers or friends.”

Burnett was skeptical. She’d heard a lot of stories about Duke’s past, and she wanted answers. She asked him about his use of racial slurs, whether he’d been affiliated with a Nazi group, and if his wife had left him because he was in the Klan. Duke denied everything. He was defensive and cagey and manipulative. He also criticized the 12-year-old’s interviewing technique.

Let me tell you something,” he said. “All you’re doing in this interview is repeating allegations and attacks made against me by the media.”

Duke told Burnett that she needed to have an open mind. He suggested that she read the book Race and Reason. The author, Carleton Putnam, believed that Black Americans were genetically inferior to white Americans.

Duke talked to Burnett for 20 minutes that night. She’s not sure why he stayed on the phone that long. She thinks that Duke may have thought she was white and that she’d pass on his talking points to her parents.

Burnett’s parents weren’t Duke supporters. They did believe in good manners, though, and they asked their daughter to write Duke a thank-you note. Duke printed Burnett’s letter—and her home address—in the newsletter for his National Association for the Advancement of White People.

A handwritten thank-you note that reads: "March 23, 1989. Dear Mr. Duke, thank you so very much for the 'spur of the moment' interview you gave me on March 12, 1989. It was very helpful to my social studies project. Sincerely, JoAnna Burnett.”
A copy of the note. Courtesy of Beth Rickey’s papers via the American Jewish Committee

I received at least three letters that I remember from prisoners, from inmates telling me that they were, you know, 5-foot-whatever or 6-foot-whatever, brown hair, blue eyes, and, you know, they were Aryan,” she said.

There’s a moment at the very end of Burnett’s tape that really got to me. It comes when her conversation with Duke is over, but before she stops her recorder.

You heard it,” she says. “God, that guy is a jerk. Well, maybe not. He was just getting his points through, and he was like, ‘you should look at two sides of every story.’ ”

Burnett was puzzling through her conversation with David Duke in real time.

I mean, he’s saying I should get the book Race and Reason!” she said. “ ‘You should learn and listen to both sides of an argument.’ Yes, but—should I really be letting David Duke tell me this?”

Should we be letting David Duke give us his side of the argument?

I’ve thought about that question a lot as I’ve been doing my research for Slow Burn. It’s standard practice in journalism to reach out to any subject you’re reporting on. For one thing, people have a right to respond to accusations you’re making against them. Plus, a story typically benefits from the perspective of its main subject. But David Duke is not a typical subject.

Consider Tom Snyder’s interview with Duke on NBC’s Tomorrow Show in 1974—the one we excerpted in the second episode of our series, where the host and the white nationalist sounded almost chummy.

Snyder introduced Duke to a huge new audience, and I don’t think he understood the gravity of that choice. The 37-year-old late-night host wasn’t as prepared as the 12-year-old Jo-Anna Burnett: He allowed Duke to define himself and to spread his white nationalist message nationwide. Other TV anchors have done a much better job confronting Duke. (You’ll hear about one of them later in our series.) But sometimes, the best choice is to keep someone like Duke off the stage entirely. And that’s why I won’t be interviewing Duke for this season of Slow Burn.

In the episodes we’ve already released, listeners have heard plenty of Duke’s voice. I don’t think there’s any doubt about what he believed in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, or today. Duke told Burnett that we all change and grow, but he’s still using whatever platform he has to foment racism and anti-Semitism.

Duke is also congenitally dishonest—he made himself a mainstream political candidate by lying about his views and his background. His goal in interviews isn’t to explain himself. It’s to manipulate the record.

I’m doing this series because I think the Duke phenomenon warrants close scrutiny, and because the ideas he espouses are still with us—and still dangerous.

But Duke the politician is not currently a threat. Yes, he attached himself to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, and yes, he supported Donald Trump’s run for the presidency. But the last time he ran for office, in 2016, he got 3 percent of the vote in a bid for the U.S. Senate. Talking to him now would serve no one’s interests but David Duke’s. We’ll be sure to include Duke’s responses to allegations leveled against him. But his core beliefs—that Black people are inferior to white people, that the Holocaust never happened—don’t deserve to be debated. So we’re not going to hand him the microphone.

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