A quarter-century before Dave Chappelle’s absurdist skit of a Black Klansman debuted in 2003, Colorado Springs’ first Black detective began going undercover as a member of the KKK — and nearly became the chapter’s leader.
In November 1978, Ron Stallworth — the real-life officer at the center of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman — received a callback from a member of the Colorado Springs Ku Klux Klan chapter, which had placed an ad in the newspaper. Asked why he wanted to join the group, he thought about hateful rhetoric used against him, and rattled off slurs directed at anyone “that does not have pure white Aryan blood in their veins.
“I want to join the Klan so I can stop the future abuse of the white race,” Stallworth told the organizer on the other line.
The white supremacist was thrilled to have Stallworth join. He joined the chapter under his real name and had a white officer act as his physical double — and, as Stallworth detailed in his memoir Black Klansman, the Klan members didn’t pick up on it.
Even David Duke, the KKK Grand Wizard himself, found him to hold promise as a Klan leader and developed a “friendship.” When Stallworth ended up as Duke’s bodyguard during the latter’s visit to Colorado Springs in January 1979, he recounted in the book that Duke appeared not to connect the voice of the Black man to what Duke considered the “pure Aryan white racial intelligence superiority” he assumed he had been regularly hearing over the phone.
In less than a year, Stallworth foiled cross burnings, supplied police departments nationwide with Klan rally plans, and exposed military members with some of the highest security clearances as white supremacists. Most important to him, he prevented acts of terror from etching into the minds of children, especially children of color.
The investigation became an inside joke to incredulous law enforcement at the time, and Stallworth turned it into a memoir in 2014. But with white-supremacist thinking baked into the Republican Party and the alt-right tied to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, Stallworth says Lee’s highly acclaimed movie could not have arrived at a better moment.
“They are ideologically synced together, and now they’re accepted as one,” Stallworth tells SF Weekly ahead of a screening of the film and conversation with poet Michael Warr at the Alamo Drafthouse on Saturday, Oct. 13. “It would not have been effective if it came out sooner.”
In his memoir, Stallworth repeatedly emphasizes the KKK’s PR sanitizing under Duke, who had presidential ambitions and sought to make his group’s views appear respectable. Duke wanted Klan members to utter the N-word only in private and to turn their ideology into policy as elected officials, the way Denver mayor and Klansman Benjamin Stapleton did in the early 1900s.
So convincing was Stallworth that his fellow Klan members pushed him to lead the chapter early on. His team maintained caution to avoid entrapment — that is, leading someone into a crime and then arresting them for it — but felt great potential for valuable information.
The police chief at the time did not agree and shut down the seven-month investigation to monitor Klan activities, bolstered by two additional undercover officers. All records of it were destroyed. What else could Stallworth have prevented or detected of a now-resurgent white supremacist movement had the higher-ups let it follow its natural course?
“We’ll never know,” Stallworth says.
BlacKkKlansman, screening and conversation with Ron Stallworth, Saturday, Oct. 13, 7-10 p.m. at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at New Mission, 2550 Mission St, $30, litquake.org
Read more from SF Weekly‘s Litquake issue:
This Is the Last Literary Death Match at the Elbo Room
Don’t expect authors slamming each other over the back with folding chairs on Oct. 17. Expect literary excellence with a little silliness.
Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin Has Led a Most Magnificent Life
And she makes a compelling case that Richmond, Calif., saved the world.
What Would the Kids in the Hall Do?: Dave Foley at Litquake
Dave Foley discusses his memoir, Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy, and the sketch-comedy troupe’s legacy.
(Lit-)Crawling out of This Mess, at Survival of the Queerest
There are dozens of events within the three segments of this year’s Lit Crawl. But only Baruch Porras-Hernandez’s showcase has QTPOCs of this caliber.