In 1978, Detective Ron Stallworth of the Colorado Springs Police Department noticed an advertisement in the local newspaper seeking members to start a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He responded with interest.
Stallworth, the department’s first Black detective, posed as a white man who “hated Blacks, Jews, Mexicans and Asians.” His undercover character became enraged enough to join the KKK because his sister had been dating a Black man.
Thus began Stallworth’s investigation into the KKK, a story that he would later publish in his 2014 book “The Black Klansman,” which was later adapted into the 2018 Spike Lee film “BlacKkKlansman.”
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you get involved with the police force?
I moved to Colorado Springs in 1972 and I was simply looking for jobs. They were hiring. The position was with the Police Cadet Program, which was a program for high school graduates between the ages of 17 and 19 who aspired to become police officers. The starting salary was $5.25 an hour — that was in the days when the minimum wage was $1.60, so I applied for that job and I got it.
What was it like existing as a Black police officer in the 1970s during a time of social upheaval?
No different than any other period in American history. You have to deal with racism as it comes and balance things out.
What kind of advice would you give a student who might be interested in a career in law enforcement?
Give it serious consideration. Are there bad cops? Yes. Are there bad lawyers? Yes. Are there bad nurses, doctors, Indian chiefs? Absolutely. You name it and there’s good and bad. But, not everybody is bad and not everybody is corrupt. For a career, I’d say go for it.
How did it feel for you to be exposed to that kind of rhetoric of hatred?
I was just doing my job. It didn’t really affect me personally because it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t hear anything from them that I didn’t hear in normal society in terms of language, derogatory language, racial language. In other words, [the KKK] is as American as apple pie.
Were there ever any instances where you feared you’d be caught out?
No, no. I was an undercover investigator, and as undercover cops, we don’t feel fear. We just go out and do the job we’re assigned to do and let the chips fall where they may.
What inspired you, years later, to write your book?
I felt like doing it! I knew I had a unique story — I knew it was comical, unbelievable. People would challenge me on it, but I had all the evidence that would be needed to prove it. So one day I came home from the junior college where I was teaching at the time, I pulled out a legal pad, sat down and started writing. And about nine months later, I finished.
How did it feel to see your story adapted to the big screen? Did anything surprise you about the way it was received?
It felt very surreal. I was surprised by how visceral it was to people, moving them to tears. Wherever we went for book signings and screens, we got the same reaction. The movie would end and credits would roll, and then it would be deathly silent in the auditorium. You could hear the clear sounds of sobbing around the auditorium wherever we went, in every part of the country. Some people would break out in applause, others would break out in serious tears. People would come up to my wife and I to ask for forgiveness and apologize for the actions in general of white people, and ask if they could hug us. It was a very moving moment for us.
You had some interactions with David Duke, one of the most high-profile members of the KKK. What was that like for you?
David Duke is nothing special. He’s just another guy who blessed himself with this title, the “Grand Wizard,” and put on a stupid white robe and started spouting off his white superiority rhetoric. How did it feel for me? Good — I was making a fool out of the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan!
What perspective did you get on the type of people involved in these hate organizations? What would you like students to take away from your experience?
They’re stupid idiots. Small-minded, pea-brained, as Hillary Clinton said, “deplorable.” That’s all. And I’d say [to students]: There is no superior master race like a lot of whites want you to believe — like Donald Trump believes. We are all equal, and we should do everything we can to build up this country, not bring it down.
Cormac LaLiberte is the current editor of the college news desk. He is a junior studying linguistics, and has previously reported primarily on social issues pertaining to UW-Madison. Get in touch on Twitter @CormacLaLiberte.