Ron Stallworth, the Black Klansman
By Lauren Arzbaecher
Illustrations by Janiece Maddox
***This piece contains spoilers of the memoir Black Klansman and its film adaptation***
After secretly infiltrating the Colorado Springs Klu Klux Klan in the 70's as a black police officer, Ron Stallworth wrote the memoir of a lifetime.
At the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) in October of 1978, Stallworth was scanning through the classifieds of a local daily newspaper for reports of any subversive activities when he stumbled upon a nondescript ad for the Klu Klux Klan. The public nature of the ad prompted him to send a letter to the listed address posing as a white man aligned with the mindset of the group to find out more information, because, as Stallworth expressed, “What the hell?”
He included the undercover phone number and in a lapse of judgement, signed his real name to the note before sending it.
When a return call from Klan member Ken O’Dell rang to the undercover line, Stallworth continued his ruse, replying with hate speech against minorities apt of one wanting to join the Klan. With O’Dell’s interest in him joining piqued, they set up a time and place to meet in person.
“But because God blessed me with this ebony skin, I couldn’t meet him,” Stallworth said.
He needed a white Ron Stallworth.
Hosted by the University Lecture Committee, Stallworth spoke at the Englert Theatre on Wednesday, January 23rd about his investigation and career on the Colorado Springs Police force as well as his notable book Black Klansman.
His first time in Iowa, Stallworth greeted the crowd with a smile, waving jovially to all levels of the packed theatre. The event consisted of Stallworth discussing his story followed by a short question and answer session with audience members. Afterwards, attendees had the opportunity to see a screening of BlacKkKlansman, the film adaptation of the memoir, at FlimScene later in the night.
Stallworth found his white stand-in with Chuck, a CSPD detective in the Narcotics Unit. After a bit of convincing, Chuck agreed to assist in Stallworth’s investigation and go undercover as the face of Ron Stallworth while the real Ron would handle any over-the-phone interactions with the Klan.
The investigation reached a climax when Grand Wizard David Duke of the KKK arrived in Colorado Springs to speak and host a Klan rally, along with a plan to meet a promising new Klansman he had spoke with on the phone several times: Ron Stallworth. In a comical twist of fate, the real Stallworth was assigned by the chief to be Duke’s personal bodyguard while he was in town due to the rising death threats thrown at Duke from anti-Klan groups.
“If David Duke was up on this stage, you would probably like him,” Stallworth said of Duke. “He is very nice and good looking, a well-spoken man. But when the topic of race came up, he stopped being Dr. Jekyll and became Mr. Hyde.”
Stallworth witnessed this monstrous side of Duke firsthand. During his station as Duke’s bodyguard, Stallworth asked if he could have a photo with him—as no one would ever believe he had been sanctioned to this assignment without some kind of proof. Stallworth stood between Duke and the Grand Dragon, Fred Wilkens, for the picture. Right as the shutter clicked, Stallworth put his arms around the two men, grinning. Furious, Duke tried to snatch the photo and camera away as he could not be seen in a photo like that, but Stallworth got to it faster.
“If you touch me I’ll arrest you for assault on a police officer. That’s worth about five years in prison. Don’t do it!” Stallworth said of his argument with Duke after the altercation. “I was David Duke’s worst nightmare. I was a [explicit] with a badge and a gun, and I had the authority to kick his ass. ”
The photo has since been lost, but it remains perhaps the most memorable moment in the investigation.
Though Stallworth’s memoir was originally published in 2014, his story has recently been brought into the spotlight with the success of BlacKkKlansman, a movie adaptation directed by Spike Lee and produced by Jordan Peele. Released this summer, it has garnered mainly favorable public and critical reception. The film was nominated for four Golden Globes and is going into the Academy Awards with six nominations, including Best Picture.
BlacKkKlansman follows the memoir relatively closely, pulling some of its dialogue directly from the pages. Viewers see Stallworth from his early days as a cadet in the police department through his remarkable undercover investigation of the Klu Klux Klan. The action-packed screenplay written by Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, however, does have some distinct differences from the book.
The film is striking visually, flush with Spike Lee’s signature edge and classic camera shots. Powerful imagery aside, BlacKkKlanman’s popularity has brought criticism of what message its plot—and Stallworth’s story as a whole—is really sending. Stallworth is the hero of the film, yet he is a cop, a position so frequently associated brutality towards minorities. This incongruity, along with others, struck a wrong chord with some viewers.
Since the majority of the records of the investigation were destroyed per the chief’s orders, the only people who can corroborate or challenge the details of Stallworth’s story other than himself are those who were directly involved in it. Rapper and screenwriter Boots Riley claims that what is in the memoir is just one side of the story. Riley revealed in a Twitter post that police or FBI infiltrations of white supremacist groups at this time weren’t always trying to stop these groups, but using them as a tool to to threaten or attack radical organizations, at times to the point of planned assassinations of prominent rebel figures.
While the question of the intentions and implications in Stallworth’s story are up for debate, its connection to present day instances of racism is the most poignant takeaway. This stirring association was highlighted in the question and answer portion of the night.
One audience member originally from Ferguson, Missouri, gave an emotional testament of how he had been labeled by the Trump government as a terrorist and that present-day Klan members had been sent to follow him. Stallworth was disheartened by what this young person had gone through, and closed out the night with a statement on how the nation can move forward from the dysfunction of its current political state.
“There is no excuse for what is going on in our body politic right now,” said Stallworth, addressing the current social and political affairs occuring in the U.S. “We’re stuck with a white supremacist in the White House who has given free reign to these people to come out of the shadows and spit their venomous vile, and we have to stop that. And the way you do that is at the ballot box.”