These days the Ku Klux Klan is mostly an unfunny joke, a smattering of ignorant racists who play dress-up and hold poorly planned, sparsely attended rallies to protest the renaming of parks. But half a century ago the Klan's power stretched from coast to coast, and members of the hooded hate group carried out firebombing attacks and murdered civil rights workers in the South. In the 1970s, internal conflicts and infiltration by the FBI weakened the Klan, but it was still dangerous enough that in 1979 KKK members killed five protesters in North Carolina.
It was during this era that Ron Stallworth, the first black cop in Colorado Springs, infiltrated the local Klan organization. He first made headlines in 2006 when he went public with his story and explained how he had stumbled upon the Klan and managed to become a leader in the local chapter by faking racist sentiments over the phone and sending a white colleague to meetings in his stead. He also released a book, Black Klansman, about his experience, so I figured now was as good a time as any to talk about how he pulled off a trick straight out of Blazing Saddles (and one that made for the first great skit on Dave Chappelle's short-lived TV show).
VICE: How did you first get into the police force, and how quickly after that did you realize undercover work was your thing?
Ron Stallworth: My family moved from El Paso, Texas, to Colorado Springs in the summer of 1972. I had an uncle who was a sergeant in the army stationed at Fort Carson in the state, and my mother's sister was married to him. I had toyed with the idea of joining the El Paso police department, who had lowered their age to enter the police academy from 21 to 20 as long as you turn 21 by the time you graduate. I was approaching 20 years of age, so that's when I started paying serious attention to a law enforcement career.
When I became a cadet, I immediately decided I wanted to be an undercover cop because I don't like uniforms. You put the uniform on the same way, you march in lockstep with one another. That's not my personality. When I first saw the narcotics officers walking around—these guys with long beards and long hair looking like San Francisco hippies—I liked the fact that these guys were actually cops wearing guns, carrying badges. I thought that was the neatest thing, to look like that and be a police officer. So I started a campaign to try to become a narc. Every time I saw the sergeant in charge of narcotics, I started questioning him about the job they did, how they went about doing it, basically asking him how to become an undercover cop. So I campaigned to become a narcotics officer. Every time I saw him, I said, "Hey, Art, make me a narc!" That became my standard routine. It became a kind of running joke between us. I'd see him in the department, he'd always laugh and say, "When you turn 21 and wear a uniform for two years, come see me."
How would you describe race relations in Colorado Springs at the time?
The cadet program was designed to boost minority hiring in the department, especially black employment. In that sense, the program was a failure—they hired only two blacks, myself and a female who came on about a year after I did.
I was specifically told that I would not be welcomed by the rank and file within the department because it had been white for so long. I was told on more than one occasion by my interview panel, "Essentially, you're going to be in the same position as Jackie Robinson. You will be the only black face in that department. You will be challenged at every opportunity, and you will be in a hostile environment. The challenge for you is to exist in that hostile environment without fighting back." They mentioned Jackie Robinson two or three times. They gave me some scenarios: "How would you feel if an officer came up to you and referred you to as a nigger? How about a citizen?" They threw out two or three "nigger" scenarios, using the word nigger. This was 1972. This was the environment I existed in to pave a path for future generations. Did it change anything, by the way? I can tell you right now that the manager in that department is black, and a friend of mine. There's also a female lieutenant among 43 total officers who are black.
You got your shot as an undercover because Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther leader, was coming to town. What can you tell me about that episode?
They were concerned about his fiery and bombastic rhetoric and his ability to raise the masses through his use of words, so I was asked if I wanted to go undercover in the black night club that was hosting him. They knew that I wanted to do undercover work. That was my opportunity. I was given that special assignment, which I eagerly took.
I went undercover in the night club, with lots of apprehensions about whether I would be recognized, given the time I'd been in uniform. Naturally I had butterflies in my stomach. That's something everybody goes through when they're working a new assignment, especially when they're trying to keep their identity from being recognized. It all came very naturally to me. I found myself at various times caught up in Stokely's rhetoric—what he was saying, as a black man, made a lot of sense to me. I found myself caught up in the hype of what he was saying. At various times when everybody was responding, yelling, "Right on brother! Black power!" I found myself caught up in it too and would jump up and yell, "Black Power!" But then I'd think, You're supposed to be working this fool! You're supposed to be undercover.
But you were able to get in and out without being detected?
After Stokely finished his speech, he got a round of rousing applause, and there was a reception line there to greet him. I got in the line. It was barely seven years or so earlier that I had been watching him on TV when in high school. This was a piece of living contemporary black history, American history for me, and I wanted to meet him. So I got in the reception line and shook his hand.
I asked him, "Brother Stokely, do you honestly believe there is going to be a war between blacks and whites and they're going to kill people?" He leaned in and said, "Brother, the war is coming, and we're going to have to kill white people." Then he said, "Thank you, brother." I walked out, and that was my brief moment with a living piece of black history.
So how did you first get assigned to keeping tabs on the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado?
I was assigned to the intelligence section of my department, and in intelligence you handle a variety of issues: criminal intelligence, organized crime, VIP protection. One of the things we routinely did was read the newspapers to see what, if anything, in there might warrant our attention. I saw this classified ad that said Ku Klux Klan, and there was a PO box address, so I wrote a little letter basically under the guise of being a white racist: I said I hated all niggers, Jews, spics, chinks, wops. I used all the derogatory terms for the various races they like to use. And I said I wanted to do something about it, that I wanted—to use a popular term of the day—to take back our country from these people, But I made a crucial mistake: I signed my real name to the letter. To be quite honest with you, I had a brain cramp. So I signed my real name to this letter instead of one of my undercover names, but then I put the undercover phone number and PO box we used. I honestly thought that the PO box on the classified ad was not legitimate, but responded to it just in case. I was expecting to get a leaflet or phamphlet. That's as far as I expected it go.
What happened next—how did they bring you into the fold?
Maybe a week later, I got a phone call at the undercover phone line in my office. I answered it, and the guy on the other end of the line said, "Am I speaking to Ron Stallworth?" I sat there thinking, Who the heck is calling me on this line? And then he explained he was the local organizer of the Ku Klux Klan. That's how he referred to himself. He said he had gotten my letter. And that's when I realized: Uh oh, I gotta come up with a plan real quick.
He wanted to know why I decided to join my Klan. I told him again I hated niggers, Jews, spics, chinks, wops, Mexicans, and they were taking over the country, and I wanted to take our country back. Again, the rhetoric you're hearing today, I was using back then. And then I added something else to flavor it up a bit: I said my sister is dating a nigger, and every time he puts his filthy black hands on her white body, it pisses me off, and I want to do something to stop that from happening in the future. He responded by saying, "You're just the kind of guy we're looking for!" and "How can we meet?"
That's how this investigation started. Obviously I couldn't meet him because of my skin color, so I postponed our meeting for a week to give me time to set something up. We talked further. I tried to get him to tell me how big they were. He wouldn't, but said they were relatively small. Most of 'em were from Fort Carson, Colorado. He told me he was a soldier at Fort Carson. I asked him activities they were planning to do as a group. This started in October of '78, this conversation. One of the things they were planning to do was have a Poor White Folks Christmas during the holiday season in which they would give care packages to poor white families. He said all niggers ever did was take advantage of white people by gaming the system—welfare and things like that. He said Jews control the system, and they use niggers to do their evil deeds. Nobody ever thought about poor whites.
Did he let you know about any illegal Klan activity?
We had two gay bars in town at the time, and he said he wanted to "bomb the two fag bars." That really got my radar up. He asked for my description, so I identified a fellow officer of mine, a detective in the narcotics division who was my height and weight. I even described how he'd be dressed because I knew how this officer came dressed to work. I spoke to the officer—in my book, I refer to him as Chuck, or as the white Ron Stallworth.
That was the challenge we faced throughout our conversation. Anything I said on the phone, Chuck had to pretend like he was the one who'd been talking to them on th phone and carry it to the next level. I on the other hand had to pretend like I'd been at that face-to-face meeting. We had to maintain that conversational flow at all times so that they believed they were talking to one person and one person only. That was the tricky part because Chuck's voice is totally different than mine.
Didn't they get suspicious?
Only once in the entire seven months of the investigation was I ever challenged as to why my voice sounded different than Chuck's. Chuck had gone to a meeting I set up, and later that day, as I thought about something that had been said at that meeting, I got on the phone and called Ken, the local organizer. I started talking to him as if I'd been at the meeting, but he said, "You sound different, what's the matter?" I coughed a couple times and said I had a sinus infection. And he said, "Oh, I get those all the time. Here's what you need to do to take care of that."
Did you ever fear for your own safety?
The only time I was apprehensive about this falling apart was on January 10, 1979, when David Duke—the grand wizard—came into town. I describe it in my book as the "camera showdown." I had been talking to Duke on the phone periodically, and I had been talking to a gentleman by the name of Fred Wilkens—he was the Colorado grand dragon, the state leader. Duke came into town for a recruiting trip, and was going to be addressing print and television media. During the course of the morning of his arrival, my chief of police contacted me and told me he wanted me to be David Duke's bodyguard during his stay in town. We had been getting death threats.
Was your commander trying to get under Duke's skin, so to speak, by assigning you to guard him, or what?
No, I was the only one available in the intelligence division. I argued with the chief over the fact that I had this investigation going on and putting me in close contact with David Duke and these people could jeopardize the entire thing because they might recognize my voice. He said he was willing to take that chance and didn't want anything happening to Duke while he was in his city.
So I saluted and went to the steakhouse where Duke was having a luncheon. Fred Wilkins and David Duke were there, and then there was a gentleman by the name of Charles or Chuck Howarth—he was head of the ultra-right-wing group Posse Comitatus. They were big pains in our collective police butts in Colorado. It was the forerunner of what later became the militia movement in America. I introduced myself to David Duke, told him I was a detective assigned to be his bodyguard because of threats made against him. I said that I did not believe in his political philosophy or ideology but I was a professional and would do anything within my means to make sure he got out safe from my city. He thanked me very cordially, very graciously—he shook my hand, even gave me the Klan handshake. He didn't know that I knew it but he gave me the Klan handshake. He was pleased, as was the local organizer. And then I asked him for a picture. I said, "Mr. Duke, nobody will ever believe me if I told them I was your bodyguard, would you mind taking a picture with me?" He said, "No, not at all." I gave the camera to Chuck, the white Ron Stallworth, and stood between David Duke and the grand dragon. I put my arm on both their shoulders, and the grand dragon thought it was funny, but David Duke was offended—he pushed my arm away. He said, "I'm sorry, I can't be seen in a photo with you like that." I said to Chuck, "When you hear me say three, snap the photo."
I said one, two, and on the count of three put my hand back on David Duke's shoulder and Chuck snapped the photo. And at that moment David Duke ran away from me and tried to grab the camera from Chuck's hand. I was half a step quicker than Duke, and when he reached over to grab the camera from my hand, I looked at him and said, "If you touch me, I'll arrest you for assault on a police officer. Don't do it." Duke stopped dead in his tracks and we had a staredown. All of his entourage stopped smiling and they stared at me. It seemed like forever but was probably only three to five seconds that were staring at each other, but at that precise moment the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan knew the meaning of a black man having control over him because I owned him—I was his nightmare: I was a nigger with a badge, and I controlled his destiny and he knew it.
What's your sense of where the Klan stands these days?
The Ku Klux Klan has never died in America. It has ebbs and flows, but it never really dies, and it's never been as strong as it once was in the 20s, and in the 50s and 60s at the height of the Civil Rights movement. I don't think it ever will be [that strong] again—society has changed too much—but the very fact that it exists is what America should be concerned about. We should always be vigilant of that fact and be mindful of it and ready to combat it in whatever form it exists in.
Did you ever find yourself sympathizing with any of the Klansmen you came into contact with?
No, they were all assholes. There was no sympathy whatsoever. My only regret was that I couldn't reveal who I was and what I was doing to thoroughly embarrass them and show them what idiots they were. I had to maintain the secrecy of it. The pleasure I got is that I was making fools out of them and they didn't know they being made fools out of at the time it was happening. I got satisfaction out of that duality. They were a bunch of racist idiots.
Has the reaction to the book surprised you at all?
It has surprised me a little bit. I know the story fascinates a lot of people when they hear me, a black man conning a grand wizard of the KKK and his followers the way I did. When I hear that it's spreading around the world... I was interviewed this morning by a radio station in Dublin, Ireland, I have a great niece who's a teacher in Japan and she says it's in magazines and newspapers over there in foreign languages she can't understand. That's where it's kind of overwhelming.
You can buy Stallworth's book online here.
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