How A Black Detective Infiltrated The KKK | WYPR

How A Black Detective Infiltrated The KKK

Jun 9, 2018
Originally published on June 9, 2018 4:45 pm

In 1978, Ron Stallworth was working as a detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department when he came across a classified ad to find out more about the Ku Klux Klan — and answered it. Two weeks later, he got a call on the police department's undercover operations line. It was the local KKK organizer. He asked why Stallworth wanted to join the Klan.

"I said I wanted to join because I was a pure, Aryan, white man who was tired of the abuse of the white race by blacks and other minorities," Stallworth recalls.

But Stallworth — a highly decorated law enforcement veteran — is actually black. In his new memoir, Black Klansman, he tells the story of how he hoodwinked the Ku Klux Klan into thinking he was one of them. (As you might imagine, this conversation includes some racist language.)


Interview Highlights

On why the Colorado Springs Police Department was investigating the Klan

My job as an intelligence officer, detective, was to monitor any subversive activity which could negatively impact the city of Colorado Springs. And, let's face it, the Ku Klux Klan historically is a subversive group. ... And when I saw the ad in the newspaper, obviously I perked up to this fact and set about trying to address it, to understand it.

On how he infiltrated the Klan

When you've grown up and you've been called "nigger" many times in the course of your lifetime, and you've been treated negatively because of your race, it's not too hard to put on that front. ...

The gambit was: I obviously, as a black man of African descent, could not meet a white supremacist posing as a KKK member. So I had to have a white officer introduced into the mix posing as Ron Stallworth. So I got an undercover narcotics detective friend of mine — in the book, he's identified as Chuck, that's not his real name — but I had Chuck pose as me. And for the initial meeting, I gave him any identification that I had minus a photograph, so that if they should question him about being me he could pull those out and, you know, convince them. And it worked. We did this for seven and a half months.

On the Klan organizer he and his partner interacted with

Ken O'dell, the local organizer that I answered the initial phone call with, he was a soldier at Fort Carson, Colo., about 5' 9", stocky. He was not — none of these guys were, as I say in my book, the brightest light bulbs in the socket. Because if they were, they would have known that they were talking to two different people — one on the phone and one in person — because my voice and Chuck's voice sound nothing alike. But they never picked up on it in seven and a half months of phone conversations and periodic face-to-face meetings with Chuck.

On meeting then-KKK leader David Duke and receiving the Klan handshake from him

David Duke came into town in January for a publicity blitz. He was going to appear at a couple of radio stations, a TV station doing a debate with a black history professor. ... And he was getting death threats. My chief called me in the morning of his appearance in Colorado Springs, and my chief told me he was assigning me to be David Duke's bodyguard because of the death threats.

I met David Duke and introduced myself without giving him my name. I simply said, "I am a detective with the Colorado Springs Police Department." And then I told him, "I don't believe in your philosophy or your political ideology, but I am a professional and I will do everything within my means to ensure your safety while you're in my city."

He was very cordial. He shook my hand. He gave me the Klan handshake — he didn't know that I knew it was the Klan handshake, but he did give it to me. If you shake a person's hand and you extend your index and middle finger along their wrist and as you're pumping their hand you start pressing your fingers in their wrist area, it's the Klan handshake. ...

When he was not talking about race, David Duke was a very pleasant guy to talk to. He was a very nice conversationalist. He seemed like a regular guy on the phone when the subject wasn't on race and on Jews and ethnicity. When that subject came around, the Dr. Jekyll in him left and Mr. Hyde appeared — the monster appeared.

On what he learned about the KKK

Well one thing I learned is that they're very serious about their objective, their agenda. They truly believe that they, as white people, are inherently superior to blacks, Jews and other minorities. That was part of David Duke's agenda, is to turn the Klan from a racist organization in the eyes of the public into something that is respectable and acceptable. And sadly to say, with the gentleman we have in the White House, part of that has been accomplished.

There is a historical thread from the David Duke that I dealt with and what he was saying — his approach to immigration and other issues impacting the country — a connection between him and what Donald Trump campaigned on and what Donald Trump is a governing by. That historical thread is quite obvious if you sit back and connect the dots. I connect them a little bit in my book. It is addressed in the movie. But in many respects, David Duke was the playbook. He established the playbook by which Donald Trump ran and ultimately became — I won't even use the term — let's just say he became the occupant of the White House.

Hiba Ahmad and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Detective Ron Stallworth was on the intelligence unit of the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1978 when he answered a classified ad - remember those - to find out more about the Ku Klux Klan. Two weeks later, he got a call on the undercover operations phone line from the local organizer of the KKK who asked, why do you want to join the Klan? Detective Stallworth, what did you say?

RON STALLWORTH: Yes. I said I wanted to join because I was a pure, Aryan, white man who was tired of the abuse of the white race by blacks and other minorities.

SIMON: Ron Stallworth, a highly decorated law enforcement veteran for more than 30 years, has told his personal story of being an African-American police officer who managed to hoodwink - if you please - the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. And his memoir is "Black Klansman." And as you might imagine, there's probably going to be some racist language in this interview. He joins us from the studios of KTEP in El Paso, Texas. Thanks so much for being with us.

STALLWORTH: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: How did you learn to be such a convincing white racist?

STALLWORTH: (Laughter) When you've grown up and you've been called nigger many times in the course of your lifetime and you've been treated negatively because of your race, it's not too hard to put on that front.

SIMON: Why was it important for the Colorado Springs Police Department to investigate the Klan?

STALLWORTH: My job as an intelligence officer detective was to monitor any subversive activity which could negatively impact the city of Colorado Springs. And let's face it, the Ku Klux Klan historically is a subversive group. And when I saw the ad in the newspaper, obviously, I perked up to this fact and set about trying to address it to understand it.

SIMON: You had to come up with a gambit for actually meeting him, and you couldn't meet him. You had to find a colleague to do it. So what was the gambit you came up with?

STALLWORTH: The gambit was I, obviously as a black man of African descent, could not meet Ken O'dell, the local organizer posing as a KKK member. So I had to take a - have a white officer introduced into the mix posing as Ron Stallworth. So I got a undercover narcotics detective friend of mine - in the book, he's identified as Chuck. That's not his real name, but I had Chuck pose as me. And for the initial meeting, I gave him any identification that I had minus a photograph so that if they should question him about being me, he could pull those out and, you know, convince them, and it worked. We did this for 7 1/2 months.

SIMON: David Duke does enter the story, and it's extraordinary. I don't know how to begin to explain this. You wind up being one of David Duke's bodyguards for a visit he makes - well, let me get you to tell the story - while Chuck essentially plays you.

STALLWORTH: David Duke came into town in January for a publicity blitz. He was going to appear at a couple of radio stations, a TV station, doing a debate with a black history professor from southern Colorado State University. And he was getting death threats. My chief called me in the morning of his appearance in Colorado Springs, and my chief told me he was assigning me to be David Duke's bodyguard because of the death threats. I met David Duke and introduced myself without giving him my name. I simply said I am a detective with the Colorado Springs Police Department. And then I told him I don't believe in your philosophy or your political ideology, but I am a professional and I will do everything within my means to ensure your safety while you're in my city.

He was very cordial. He shook my hand. He gave me the Klan handshake. He didn't know that I knew it was the Klan handshake, but he did give it to me. If you shake a person's hand and you extend your index and middle finger along their wrist - and as you pumping their hand, you start pressing your fingers in their wrist area. It's the Klan handshake.

SIMON: The question that you wind up wrestling with, I think at the end of the book, is - well, let me put it this way - that the Klan and David Duke specifically are hateful and jerks is beyond dispute. You don't wind up with a lot of regard for their intelligence, which raises the question, how dangerous are they?

STALLWORTH: Very. When I say they are not the brightest, they were not the brightest light bulbs in the socket. The people I was dealing with were not. David Duke, in spite of his having - at that time, he had a master's degree in political science from Louisiana State University. I merely had a high school education and about 12 hours of college credit. So the very fact that he was being conned by somebody with a lower degree of education than him, I'll admit, I got a particular thrill out of that. But let nobody who reads my book think that these people because they weren't the brightest light bulbs in the socket were not and are not dangerous. They were very serious.

SIMON: What do you think you learned about the KKK and racism and bigotry during those months?

STALLWORTH: Well, one thing I learned is that they're very serious about their objective, their agenda. They truly believe that they as white people are inherently superior to blacks, Jews and other minorities. That was one part of David Duke's agenda is to turn the Klan from a racist organization in the eyes of the public into something that is respectable and acceptable.

And sadly to say, with the gentleman we have in the White House, part of that has been accomplished. There is a historical thread from the David Duke that I dealt with and what he was saying, his approach to immigration and other issues impacting the country, a connection between him and what Donald Trump campaigned on and what Donald Trump is governing by. That historical thread is quite obvious if you sit back and connect the dots.

SIMON: Ron Stallworth - his book, "Black Klansman," is now also a motion picture made by Spike Lee. It comes out later this summer. Thanks so much for being with us.

STALLWORTH: My pleasure, Scott, enjoy your show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.