Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
Retired police Sgt. Ron Stallworth’s story - about how he, a black undercover Colorado cop, infiltrated one of the nation’s most notorious hate groups in 1978 - is one such truth. Stallworth, 61, recently released the book “Black Klansman,” detailing his amazing story during his early years of service.
“I was sitting in my office reading the newspaper,” Stallworth, who now lives in Utah, said. “I was going through the classified section, and on this particular day there was an ad that said ‘Ku Klux Klan.’”
It listed a post office box to send inquiries, and so he wrote a letter, identifying himself as a white man and peppering the note with racial slurs. The undercover officer, who was still in his 20s at the time, did make one crucial mistake, however: He signed the letter with his real name. He wasn’t too worried, though, since he figured the whole setup was probably a joke.
It wasn’t until he got a phone call a week later from the local KKK organizer about starting a Colorado Springs chapter that he realized how serious the ad was.
Stallworth told the man that his sister was dating a “n--ger,” and how mad it made him. The organizer liked his story and figured that Stallworth was exactly what the new chapter needed. He asked to meet-which was obviously a problem. But the quick-thinking officer gave a description of one of his close friends, who worked in the narcotics division, and organized a meeting for the following week.
Stallworth’s friend Chuck would play “the white Ron Stallworth.”
“The funny thing is that Chuck’s voice ⅛was⅜ totally distinctive ⅛from⅜ mine,” Stallworth said. He was only questioned about the different voices once - and he successfully blamed the flub on a sinus infection.
There was only one other time when Stallworth’s cover was almost blown: after his supervisor assigned him to be then-Grand Wizard David Duke’s bodyguard.
“⅛Duke⅜ was planning a publicity blitz in Colorado Springs. He was coming into town to do interviews and try to drum up interest,” Stallworth said. “I got assigned to be his bodyguard because there were death threats against him.”
At the time, Stallworth was having fairly regular phone conversations with at least three Klansmen, including David Duke. “I was apprehensive that they would recognize my voice,” the retired officer said.
Stallworth remembered how seemingly amiable Duke was. He was likable enough and intelligent, a great orator, and never used slurs about black people or wore his robe. The Grand Wizard even shook Stallworth’s hand and thanked him.
“He was changing the face of the whole Ku Klux Klan,” Stallworth said, describing Duke as the type of man a girl would love to take home to her mother.
One moment between the two almost went south, however, when Stallworth had someone take a photo of him with Duke and the Grand Dragon, even putting his arm around both men. It obviously upset Duke, who tried to snatch the camera. Stallworth and Duke faced off. “If you touch me,” Stallworth said to the Grand Wizard, “I’ll arrest you for assaulting a police officer, and that’s worth five years in prison.”
Stallworth recalled, “I was thinking about all our forefathers and foremothers who ⅛were⅜ dealing with racists like this throughout the generations, who lacked power, who lacked authority, who were at the mercy of idiots like this and could do nothing to stop it because of the power of the Klan,” he said pointedly. “But on this particular occasion, I had the power, I was the authority and the Klan was at my mercy.”
Duke eventually backed down and walked away. As Stallworth put it, he was the supremacist’s greatest fear: “a n----- with a gun.”
Stallworth’s life has never really been stereotypically “normal”; his Klan infiltration epitomized his unusual approach to life.
At just 19 years old, he moved from Texas to Colorado Springs, joining the police force via a cadet program designed to bring more minorities into the department. He was the first black cadet to enter the program. At 22 he became the first black detective, the youngest in the history of the department, he said.
Meanwhile, he was just trying to save up enough money so that he could go to college to get a degree and become a physical education teacher. However, in the end, Stallworth was having too much fun as an officer, and he also realized he’d be making way more money than he would as a teacher.
One of his first undercover assignments was to look into Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael. His supervisors told him to blend in and listen to Carmichael’s speech and then report anything interesting.
“It was my first brush with living black history,” Stallworth says. “He was a fiery, bombastic speaker. He had a special way of speaking, and he could fire up a crowd like nobody’s business.”
Stallworth’s Klan investigation ended after about seven months because he was so good at his job that “the local organizer had the idea that they needed someone who was a resident of Colorado Springs to assume the duties,” he says. “They took a vote at one of their meetings, and by unanimous vote they had determined that they wanted Ron Stallworth to become the new local organizer because he was a ‘loyal and dedicated Klansman.’ “
Stallworth wanted to go for it, but the higher-ups weren’t as thrilled. “The chief panicked and said, ‘I want you to shut this investigation down now. I want you to stop sending Chuck to meetings, stop answering the undercover phone line. I want the undercover phone line changed, and I want Ron Stallworth the Klansman to disappear.’ “
The chief also ordered Stallworth to destroy all reports from the investigation. Stallworth tried to argue against closing down the operation, but his efforts were in vain.
What Stallworth didn’t do, however, was destroy all the reports.
“I took the notebooks ... and I walked out of the office with them under my arm and put them in the car. I drove home with them, and they’ve remained with me over the past 35 years, and that’s what I based my book on.
“For one thing, I recognized that I had done something quite significant. I had penetrated the Ku Klux Klan as a black man,” he continued. “To the best of my knowledge, no one had ever done that before. I have a membership card that I carry in my wallet that identifies me as a member of the ⅛Klan⅜; I have a certificate of membership signed by Duke, certifying me as a member of his ⅛Klan⅜; and if I had destroyed the information ... if I had told the story after that, nobody would ever have believed ⅛me⅜ ... because there was no evidence.”
It is believed that during Stallworth’s stint with the Klan, he prevented at least three cross burnings from occurring by upping security in those neighborhoods whenever the Klan invited him on one of their excursions.
The same day the chief told him to stop the investigation, the phone that he used for undercover work rang again and again, but Stallworth obeyed orders and didn’t answer.
“That very night, a cross burned in front of the nightclub where Carmichael had spoken three years earlier,” he said. Stallworth believes the phone call was one of his “Klan buddies” inviting him to a burning.
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Edwards is a newswriter at The Root.