In the 1970s, Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth made history by going undercover to infiltrate the KKK—but it would take decades for his successes to reach the public eye. Now, Stallworth’s incredible story is making its way to the silver screen, in a Spike Lee-directed adaption of his 2014 tell-all novel, Black Klansman.
The story begins when Stallworth—the first black detective at the Colorado Springs Police Department—spotted a classified ad for the Ku Klux Klan in a local paper. He wrote a letter to the provided address, and soon received a phone call from a Klansman. Disguised behind the phone, Stallworth was able to build a rapport with the individual on the other end of the line, until—bolstered by in-person appearances by his white colleague (who Stallworth keeps a secret to this day)—he officially joined the Klan in 1978, becoming the 872nd registered Klansman in the state.
Thanks to Stallworth’s five-month-long investigation—which ended in April 1979—numerous Klan activities were prevented or disrupted in the Colorado Springs area, including targeted bombings of two gay bars and several planned cross burnings, and multiple local armed service members were exposed as KKK members. Stallworth left the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1980, and went on to have a 32-year career in law enforcement throughout Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona. He’s now retired and lives in El Paso, Texas, with his wife.
BlacKkKlansman, which stars John David Washington as Stallworth and Adam Driver as his partner, will hit theaters on August 10—the one-year anniversary of the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in the death of one counter-protestor, Heather Heyer. BlacKkKlansman, it seems, hopes to illustrate the domestic threat of white nationalists that Stallworth dealt with in the 1970s are still present today.
Stallworth recently spoke with 5280 about the film and how racism has evolved (or not) in the United States over the past 40 years.
5280: How would you describe your time in Colorado? Do you look back on it as a positive experience?
Ron Stallworth: It was a very positive experience. The only thing I did not like about Colorado Springs was the weather. It was far too cold for me to appreciate. I moved to Colorado Springs in the summer of 1972 and joined the police force as a cadet in November at the age of 19. Two years later, I became a patrolman at 21, and then I became the youngest detective in the history of the Colorado Springs department at 22 in 1975. I was put in the detective division primarily to work with the black community, because at that time white officers were having a difficult time working with the black community for undercover purposes.
The script of the film follows closely with what you wrote in your book. It seems Spike Lee really wanted to honor your story as much as possible.
Spike has been very respectful to me and my story. He wanted to portray this as truthfully as possible and he did for the most part. They took a few liberties with the story, and I knew they would, but the liberties they took were in sync with what my story is about. We had no real bombings occur, but the potential for bombings was very real. Members of the Klan spoke to me about bombings on several different occasions.
Your story takes place in the late 1970s, but the epilogue of the film ties your story to 2017. You could interpret that as showcasing that we haven’t made much progress with handling racism in this country. Are you more optimistic than the tone of this film?
We have made significant progress in this country, but we tend to forget that racism is always there—it’s always at the forefront. It’s part of the national psyche of America. It’s in our DNA and it goes all the way back to the founding of the United States, and even before that. We need to stop being fearful of discussing the subject of race. We need to find ways to eliminate aspects of racism in American society the best that we can. You will never eliminate racism, but you can surely keep it under control. And right now it’s out of control.
Spike Lee has said all along that he intended to release this film on the anniversary of the Charlottesville demonstrations. How did you feel about that?
When I found out that he was releasing the film on the anniversary of Charlottesville, I thought it was very appropriate. What a way to honor Heather Heyer and to depict the horrors that irresponsibly took her life! I’m all for it.
Did you realize that this meant your story was about to become part of the national conversation about race?
I never set out to write anything that would become part of the national discussion. I simply wanted to tell my story. The fact that my story has become part of the national conversation about race for me is quite an honor. I hope it does some good.
You are on the record saying that you want this film to ignite a conversation about race and stimulate a discussion. What do you want that conversation to look like?
There are plenty of good people who are hesitant to talk about race in this country. Whatever it is that keeps people from engaging in those discussions, they need to move past it. Until we are all willing to engage in the conversation about race and work toward finding common ground, we can never really address this issue in America. Don’t be hesitant. Jump into the dialogue. Jump into that conversation and hopefully more people walk away from those conversations with less hatred in their hearts and we improve our society on that alone.
Finally, we must discuss that dance scene in the movie. Who has better dance moves—you or John David Washington?
I did, of course! The next time I see John David I’m going to tell him that, too. John David did alright in that scene and it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. I am really glad they put it in there.