Becoming ‘Black Klansman’: An Interview With Ron Stallworth

  Ron Stallworth’s book “BlackKklansman” was adapted into Spike Lee’s major motion picture released this year. (Credit: Focus Features)

Ron Stallworth’s book “BlackKklansman” was adapted into Spike Lee’s major motion picture released this year. (Credit: Focus Features)

By Adam Sennott

In October 1978 Detective Ron Stallworth infiltrated the Colorado Springs’ chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, making him the organization’s first black klansman.

The investigation allowed Stallworth to look behind the curtain as notorious white supremacist David Duke attempted to rebrand the Klan by talking about heritage instead of hate. But behind the scenes Duke and other white supremacists spewed racial epithets, planned cross burnings, and talked about arming klansmen with rifles “in order to shoot wetbacks walking across the Rio Grande” border, Stallworth said.

Stallworth, who detailed his undercover efforts in his 2014 memoir BlacKkKlansman, was able to help prevent several cross burnings the group had planned for the area, and unmasked two klansmen who had top security level status at NORAD. While the Klan did not take root in Colorado Springs, Duke’s brand of white nationalism went mainstream in the decades that followed, Stallworth said.

“It’s the norm now for white supremacists to claim their views in a political guise, and that political guise is in synch with that of conservative Republicans,” Stallworth said. “The two are united and one gives cover to the other.”

Stallworth was 19 years old when he joined the Colorado Springs’ Police Department in 1972 and became their first Black police cadet, according to his book. He began his investigative career by infiltrating a speech given by Black Panther’s leader Stokely Carmichael.

Three months later he became the department’s first black undercover narcotics detective. It was a path that led him to notice an ad that the Klan was looking to establish itself in Colorado Springs.

He decided to respond.

“I was an intelligence detective,” Stallworth said. “Monitoring subversive groups was part of my job, and the Klan is a subversive group, so I simply did my job.” 

Stallworth, who used his real name when he responded to the ad, said he thought he would only receive literature, pamphlets, or a copy of the Klan newspaper in response. Instead, he received a phone call from the head of the chapter, and the investigation began.

For more than seven months Stallworth pretended to be a white supremacist and spoke with the chapter leader and other Klan members over the phone, while a white detective met with them in person.

Despite the complexities of the investigations, Stallworth said he was never concerned that the Klan members would discover that there were two Ron Stallworths.

“I was a trained undercover cop,” Stallworth said. “We don’t get nervous, we do our job.”

He called the operation a “typical police investigation.”

“I had no agenda in mind when I started in investigation,” Stallworth said.  “We weren’t hoping to do anything other than to gather the information that was out there on the KKK and its impact on Colorado Springs.”

When the Klan invited him to participate in two of the cross burnings it was planning, Stallworth said he alerted police dispatch so the area would be saturated if they followed through with their plans.

“Cross burnings are a domestic act of terrorism” that would have “unnerved the community,” Stallworth said. “Cross burnings always unnerve a community. That’s been the history of it.”

The added police presence did the trick, Stallworth said.

“They chickened out as a result of that,” Stallworth said.

Along with foiling the cross burnings, Stallworth also reached out to the Klan’s national hotline, and said he was surprised when Duke answered the phone. 

 “The first phone call, when he picked it up, I was surprised because it was supposed to be a recorded message,” Stallworth said.

Stallworth said that Duke was “very pleasant on the phone, [and] a very nice conversationalist, but he couldn’t go five minutes, if that long, without talking about race and genetic superiority of whites over minorities.

“On the phone he revealed himself,” Stallworth said. “In public he concealed a lot.”

Duke also wasn’t afraid to spew racial epitaphs in private either, Stallworth said.

“In private he threw the word nigger around all the time in talking to me,” Stallworth said. “In public he never used it at all.”

The two eventually met when Duke visited Colorado Springs and Stallworth was assigned to protect him. During his visit, Stallworth asked if they could take a photo together. As the polaroid was taken, Stallworth quickly threw his arm around Duke.

  Ron Stallworth (Credit: Feature Focus)

Ron Stallworth (Credit: Feature Focus)

  Stallworth’s Colorado Springs Police Department ID card. (Credit: Focus Features)

Stallworth’s Colorado Springs Police Department ID card. (Credit: Focus Features)

“[I] wanted to have a photo that clearly indicated that I was in the moment with this fool,” Stallworth said.

Stallworth said he no longer has the photo.

“It’s been lost for years,” Stallworth said.

The investigation was abruptly shut down in 1979 after the Klan chapter attempted to make Stallworth its leader. He said he would like to have seen it through to the end.

“We didn’t get to an ultimate conclusion,” Stallworth said. “I would like to have seen how far we could have gone. We’ll never know. It would have been fun to find out though.”

Duke also left the Klan that year, telling the The Daily Telegraph that he was unable to stop members of other klan groups from doing “stupid or violent things.” He went on to form the National Association for the Advancement of White People. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan have replaced Duke’s former chapter and currently have a statewide presence in Colorado.

Stallworth  didn’t speak to the former Klan leader again for nearly 40 years, when Duke called out of concern for how he was going to be portrayed in Spike Lee’s adaptation of the BlacKkKlansman.

“We talked for an hour about a variety of things,” Stallworth said. “He said he was not a racist and a white supremacist in spite of endorsing Trump, who is.

“He said Trump’s not a racist or white supremacist because what he’s doing to keep minorities out is to help preserve white culture and white heritage,” Stallworth said. “That’s just one of the things, there was a lot.”

Unlike the times they spoke during the investigation, Stallworth said he was able to push back against Dukes rhetoric. 

“Every chance I got I did,” Stallworth said.

For his part, Duke said, in an interview for this article, that Stallworth’s book is inaccurate and that  the movie it was adapted into is “nothing more than a lie.” He said that the movie inaccurately portrayed the Klan members conspiring to bomb a group of Black activists and that “there was no evidence whatsoever of any threat to the community.”

“We were totally nonviolent,” Duke said. “There were no arrests of anybody in Colorado Springs.”

He added that in order to join the klan members had to take an oath of non-violence. 

“They swore not to do any sort of violence,” Duke said. “This was part of the solemn oath of the klansman.”

Duke also denied using racial epithets in any conversations with Stallworth.

“This movie presents these people as full of hate, and this type of thing, and it’s just not true,” Duke said. “And as far as using the N-word, I didn’t even use the N-word privately.” 

In the end, Stallworth said he doesn’t think much of Duke one way or the other.

“David Duke is just another man to me,” Stallworth said. “He was just another subject of an investigation. I didn’t give him any special Creedence one way or the other.”

Today, Stallworth said, the most powerful white suprematist lives in the White House. Trump recently denied that he holds white nationalist views, according to Politico.

“Donald Trump is a bigoted, racist, white supremacist,” Stallworth said. “People know it, but there’s a certain segment of our society – namely the Republican Party – that provides him cover to be a bigoted, racist, white supremacist and not call him out on it.”

Republicans, Stallworth said, have “lost the moral compass.”

“America has lost the moral compass too,” Stallworth said. “Donald Trump should not be where he’s at — America screwed up two years ago and allowed him to get into that office.”

The country is now paying a price for electing Trump, Stallworth said.

“We’re going to have to live with it until we can right this wrong,” Stallworth said. ■