“BlacKKKlansman,” story of Colorado Springs black cop infiltrating KKK, hits big screen

EL PASO — There’s a reason Ron Stallworth remembers everything in detail: the hate in their voices. Their constant use of racial slurs. The way they described, with heated anticipation, plans to terrorize black and Jewish people in Colorado Springs with cross burnings, marches and threats of violence, even as they sought to put a fresh, mainstream face on their racism.

As the first black detective in Colorado Springs history, Stallworth went undercover with the Ku Klux Klan from October 1978 to April 1979, improbably duping both the local chapter and its young, fast-rising national leader, David Duke, into thinking Stallworth was a racist white man.

Stallworth played the voice in phone conversations with Klan members while his partner showed up in person to Klan meetings in basements and churches around Colorado Springs. Together, they created a fictitious “Ron Stallworth” who ascended the KKK’s ranks, befriending Duke and tracing the Klan’s local infiltration all the way to Fort Carson and NORAD.

Courtesy of Ron Stallworth

Ron Stallworth’s certificate of citizenship in the Ku Klux Klan.

The detail is a product of Stallworth disobeying orders at the time to destroy evidence of his investigation, squirreling away reports from his months pretending to be a man hell-bent on harassing racial minorities in southern Colorado and beyond. The reports proved crucial while writing his 2014 book “Black Klansman.”

“I was just concerned about preserving the physical copies of the investigation, because nobody would ever believe that a black man had pulled this con job off on white supremacists,” said Stallworth, now 65 and living in his Texas hometown of El Paso.

Last month, New York-based Flatiron Books published a revised version of “Black Klansman” in anticipation of the film adaptation from Oscar winners Spike Lee (its director) and producer Jordan Peele.

Releasing nationally Aug. 10, two months before the 40th anniversary of the real-life events, “BlacKkKlansman” (as it’s now stylized) won the Grand Prix award after its Cannes Film Festival debut in May. It also received a six-minute standing ovation there that brought the film’s star — John David Washington, who plays Stallworth and is the son of Oscar winner Denzel Washington — to tears.

“I can’t believe what this man did,” said Washington, 33, who is being hailed for his breakout role in the film alongside Adam Driver, who plays his partner. “The movie has lots of humor, but you’re not laughing because it’s funny. You’re laughing because it’s ridiculous. And true. I attended a historically black college and learned a lot about my history, but I never heard this story.”

 

“The civil rights movement for me was not something in my backyard. It was a TV show.” — Ron Stallworth in “Black Klansman”

As for the real-life Stallworth, the 32-year law enforcement veteran is haunted by today’s parallels to the racial division of the 1960s and ’70s, which the movie underlines. Stallworth said he hopes the liberties the film takes, from inventing characters and situations to ending on footage of the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., protests, don’t dilute the impact of the true story.

Stallworth’s family moved from El Paso to Colorado Springs in 1972. Fresh out of high school, Stallworth left a few weeks early so he could apply to the cadet program at the Colorado Springs Police Department.

“As I looked over the classified ads, one in particular caught my eye. It read: ‘Ku Klux Klan, For Information Contact P.O. Box 4771, Security, Colorado, 80230.’ Now there was something unusual.” — “Black Klansman”

Photo courtesy of Ron Stallworth

Ron Stallworth as a 22-year-old in 1975. This picture was taken a few months before he was assigned to CSPD Detective Division in the Narcotics Unit.

Less than two years after joining as a cadet, Stallworth was sworn in as an officer of the CSPD. He had developed something of a rebellious reputation for wearing an Afro and casual clothes, unsatisfied with working the patrol beat and always looking for ways to join the narcotics and intelligence units.

His first undercover gig came during a 1977 speech by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) at the Bell’s Nightingale club. But his first big investigation wouldn’t arrive until 1978, when he received a phone call on the CSPD’s undercover line about the letter he wrote in response to the KKK classified ad.

Still, Stallworth’s sergeant needed convincing the KKK was worth investigating — even after Stallworth had set up a meeting with local KKK organizer Ken O’dell, who very much wanted to meet him.

“Oh, hell, where do I go from here?” Stallworth thought. In a lapse of judgment, he had given his real name to O’dell over the phone, and “the idiot just assumed I was a white man.”

Image courtesy of Ron Stallworth

Ron Stallworth’s Colorado Springs Police ID card.

The investigation ramped up as Stallworth’s partner Chuck (Stallworth does not give his last name in the book, and still won’t) and a fellow officer signed on. Chuck wore a wire and posed as Stallworth at meetings while Stallworth and the other officer hid outside in the car, listening as the Klan discussed its aggressive growth plans.

When Grand Wizard Duke came to town, the real-life Stallworth was assigned as his bodyguard. That led to surreal moments where Stallworth — who had “befriended” Duke over near-weekly phone conversations — overhead Duke talking about the fictitious Stallworth as a promising recruit.

“I made fools out of both of them,” Stallworth said of Duke and Denver Klan official Fred Wilkins, whom he wrapped his arms around during an impromptu photo that Chuck snapped. Duke bristled, but Stallworth warned him: ” ‘Touch me, and I’ll throw you in prison for five years.’ He wasn’t accustomed to being talked to that way, especially not by a black man.” (Duke has denied the events via Twitter.)

Stallworth’s investigation ended quietly, with his sergeant ordering him to destroy all evidence. Success, he said, lay not in what happened but what he prevented from happening.

“At least two of the (KKK) members had ordnance training, and there were plans to bomb the two gay bars in Colorado Springs,” Stallworth said, noting that no bombings or cross burnings occurred, thanks to his team’s surveillance and disruption of Klan activities.

As he continued rising at the CSPD, and eventually moved on to Arizona, Wyoming and Utah to work in other police departments and establish pioneering gang and vice units, Stallworth kept his KKK tale under wraps.

Brian Kanof, Special to The Denver Post

Ron Stallworth, author of “Black Klansman,” at his El Paso, Texas home on July 25, 2018.

It’s one of these pieces of reality that almost plays like social satire. So, I was immediately obsessed with this story.” — “BlacKkKlansman” producer Jordan Peele, in The Hollywood Reporter

When Stallworth retired in 2005, Deseret News reporter Deborah Bulkeley asked about his most interesting assignments for a career retrospective. The KKK story rose quickly to the top. After it was published, Stallworth fielded Hollywood offers, but nothing developed and years passed until Stallworth again became motivated to write his memoir. His long-distance girlfriend and former Austin High classmate Patsy (whom he moved back to El Paso for and married last year) read the drafts and gave him notes.

The book was published in 2014, and Hollywood again came calling. This time Stallworth was ready with a business manager and a willingness to develop his story into a film.

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