Ron Stallworth Isn't Just The Real 'BlacKkKlansman,' He's "Hip-Hop's First Cop" Too [INTERVIEW]
A black detective poses as a white supremacist to investigate the Ku Klux Klan. This is the basis for Spike Lee‘s latest movie, BlacKkKlansman. Sure, such a premise sounds fictional — the inverse of Dave Chappelle‘s memorable Clayton Bigsby sketch. But the soon-to-be-released film is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth — otherwise known as the real “Black Klansman.”
The moniker is the name of Stallworth’s book. Released in 2014, Black Klansman details how he became a part of the KKK’s Colorado Springs chapter while he was an intelligence detective in 1978. Stallworth investigated the hate group for nine months, handling phone conversations with members while Chuck — a white officer — went to meetings in his place.
But there’s still so much to Stallworth aside from being the Black Klansman. During his time as a police officer, he studied the relationship between rap music and gang culture and was labeled as an expert on the subject. So much so, that ABC’s Primetime interviewed him about Tupac Shakur‘s death shortly after it occurred.
Okayplayer spoke with Stallworth about seeing his story become a feature film, why he embarked on such an investigation in the first place, and why he’s referred to as “Hip-hop’s first cop.”
Okayplayer: You started your investigation in 1978. Forty years later, it becomes a feature film. Did you ever think your legacy would be immortalized in this way?
Ron Stallworth: No, you don’t think about things like that. I wrote a book simply because I felt I had a fascinating and unique story. I mean, who would believe that a black man could pull a con job like this off? I was fortunate that that happened in 2014, but to think about it becoming a movie? That never crossed my mind.
What incited the idea to even want to do the investigation?
It was my job. My job as an intelligence detective was to monitor subversive activity within my city, and there was this article in the classified ads section for the Ku Klux Klan, and their information was in the PO box. That was the invitation to explore further. So I wrote a note to them pretending to be a white supremacist, signed my name — my real name, which was a mistake — and mailed it off. Within a week or two, I got a phone call in response from the gentleman that said he was the local organizer and wanted to know further why I wanted to be a member of the Klan. I told him that my sister was dating a nigger, and every time he put his filthy black hands on her pure white body it made me cringe, and I wanted to do something to stop the abuse of the white race. His response was, “You’re just the kind of guy we’re looking for, when can we meet?”
How did you base your white voice to even convince the leader?
There was no white voice. That’s a bunch of media hype, that I put on a white voice in order to pull this con off. I talked to David Duke and all the other Klan members exactly like I’m talking to you right now. There was no attempt to disguise my voice or pretend that I was anything other than what I was.
There’s a new movie out called Sorry to Bother You where a black man employs a “white voice.” Have you seen it?
That was a ridiculous satire. In fact, it was kind of stupid. I didn’t like it. But yeah, that played up on this white voice, black voice issue. I did nothing of the kind, as depicted in that movie.
Did you face any kind of internal battles with the police department? How did you get them to support the investigation?
When I went to get the assistance of the white officer, Chuck, to pose as me for face-to-face meetings, the lieutenant he answered to refused to give him to me because he thought that the Klan people would immediately know the voice on the end of the phone was that of a black man, versus white Chuck walking into a room. I asked him:”What does a black man sound like?” He couldn’t answer that question. When he refused to give me the use of Chuck I went over to the chief of police and told the chief what I had done, and the chief ordered him to cooperate with me and give me any resources that I needed. That was the obstacle I had to overcome.
How did you get Chuck to stay involved in the investigation?
Chuck had no choice. It was an investigation, and I had set things in motion with the Klan people before Chuck could come in. When they asked me what I looked like for the first face-to-face meeting I described Chuck. That’s when I went to get the use of Chuck from his lieutenant and the lieutenant said no. So, when the chief authorized the use of Chuck, he had no choice but to cooperate with the investigation. He was for it, by the way.
How did you go about navigating the role of a white supremacist?
Undercover work is nothing more than a form of acting. You’re pretending to be something that you’re not, and your acting has to be predicated on the intent of your investigation, the character that you’re assuming to present yourself to the suspects that you’re trying to make the case on. And you have to be convincing to them to the point where they won’t challenge you. Unlike the making of BlacKkKlansman, where Spike can say cut, and they can move on to the next scene, as an undercover cop you don’t have that luxury. You have to be on your game at all times, or else somebody could pull a gun out on you, and you have to deal with that scenario. That did happen to me on a couple of occasions.
A member of the KKK pulled out a gun on you?
No. Other undercover cases that I did.
In terms of how I convinced them I was one of them, I basically used the language of hate that they used when they communicate their intent, their ideology. I spoke negatively about blacks and other minorities. I spoke about upholding the white race like you hear Donald Trump doing. I used the language of hate and division because that’s how they talked.
Did you ever find yourself kind of understanding the allure of the KKK?
No. I knew at all times what was happening. But we had a lot of fun doing this case, simply because these guys — in the book I referred to them as not being the brightest light bulbs in the socket and they weren’t. My sergeant was listening to me talking on the telephone as a white supremacist, and cracking his sides laughing. Sometimes he would get red in the face, choke, and have to run out of the room because he was losing his breath.
We had fun in the investigation. But it was a very serious investigation, given that the people and the intent of the people that we were dealing with.
Was there ever a moment in which it seemed like they were catching on?
There was one time when I sent Chuck into a meeting. He was there for about an hour or so, then he left. He came back to the office, and then something was said that I wanted to follow up on. I waited about an hour, and then I called back to the local organizer’s house. The minute he heard my voice on the phone, he said, “What’s wrong with your voice?” So I coughed, and then I said, “I have a sinus infection.” He said, “Oh, I get those all the time. Here’s what you need to do.” Then he proceeded to describe a remedy for me. That was the only time that my voice was challenged as being different from Chuck’s.
So, while you were investigating the KKK, you also were assigned to protect David Duke when he came to Colorado Springs, correct?
What was that like, and what was he like in person?
That was one of those funny moments. Ron Stallworth was assigned to be David Duke’s bodyguard, while Ron Stallworth was one of David Duke’s Klan followers. He never knew that there were two Ron Stallworths in the same room with him. What was he like? David was a very pleasant conversationalist, and if he wasn’t talking to you about race, he’s the kind of guy who’s great to talk with. But the minute race came up, Dr. Jekyll became Mr. Hyde, and the monster was unleashed. That’s the danger to people like David Duke. He can be very pleasant and charming one minute, but he’s really a monster inside, and you always have to be on your guard with people like that.
Why protect David Duke? I know that you were assigned it, but I can imagine that you could have been like, “I’m not going to do this. Why are you making me do this?”
I was ordered to by the chief of police. I did protest the fact that I had this undercover investigation going on. I was talking to [Duke] and two other Klansmen on the phone periodically, and my being in his security could put the investigation in jeopardy. But [the chief’s] response was [Duke] was getting death threats and the chief didn’t want anything to happen to him while he was in Colorado Springs.
I can only imagine that if something had happened to Duke the blame would have probably been placed on you, but also the city probably would have gone into chaos.
Frankly, I wish something had happened to him. It wouldn’t have bothered me at all.
I know that later on, when you had revealed the story, and you were the one that had orchestrated the investigation, there were two North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) employees that had been reassigned. But were there any immediate results?
Yeah. We prevented three cross burnings. A cross burning is a domestic act of terrorism. We prevented three of those. We got the NORAD guys. We uncovered a discussion on their part to bomb two gay bars [in Colorado Springs], which never occurred, but they talked about it, and they were talking with a rival right-wing extremist group called the Posse Comitatus about stealing automatic weapons from Fort Parsons, the Army base. That never happened, but they were having discussions about it.
Was there any hesitancy to go public and reveal your story?
Well, I was told when the investigation ended, it ended because they wanted Ron Stallworth to become the leader of the Colorado Springs chapter. When I told my chief of police this he said, “Okay, we’ve gone far enough. Close the investigation, shut it down, destroy all reports, don’t answer the phone, don’t go to any more meetings. I want the Ron Stallworth Klansman to disappear.” That’s basically what I did but instead of destroying the reports, I took the two notebooks home with me and kept them all these years. From those notebooks, I wrote my book. I never spoke to the public about what was happening.
When I retired in 2006 from law enforcement in Utah, I had a 20-year career there with the Department of Public Safety, and a reporter was writing a story to commemorate my retirement, and asked me, “What do you feel is the most significant thing you’ve done in your career?” In Utah, I’m known for my work on street gangs, but I told her this Klan investigation always stuck out in my mind. She wrote her article focusing on the Klan investigation. It went viral within 24 hours, and Hollywood started calling.
Aside from your KKK investigation, you also have a long history of examining the relationship between rap music and gang culture, so much so that you’ve been called “hip-hop’s first cop.” What led to you wanting to examine that relationship?
Because I was working on street gangs in Utah and I was encountering white Mormon kids who were telling me they were Crips and Bloods, yet they had never set foot in South Central Los Angeles and didn’t know anything else about the Crips and Bloods, other than they were black. I asked them, “Where are you learning this from?” They told me, “From the rap music we listen to, specifically from the gangster rap we listen to.” This was about 1988 or so and NWA’s album Straight Outta Compton had recently come out. Basically, based on what that album was saying, they were patterning themselves after the personas of people in the lyrics.
I started studying the music to see exactly what they were listening to, and lo-and-behold, I understood why they were saying that, and I just focused on that. I ended up writing four books about it, two of which have been published. I also started lecturing around the country and testifying at Congressional hearings on the subject.
Do you still engage with rap music?
I don’t listen to a lot of rap these days. I think Kendrick Lamar is quite good at his craft. Lil Wayne, I think is a piece of shit. Never have understood the excitement with Lil Wayne. The rappers of today are not in the same league as the rappers of the early days. I liked the music back then much better than I like it now.
One thing that I read from another interview was when you were investigating this relationship, you talked with Ice Cube about his lyrics in NWA, specifically those geared towards police. I thought that your curiosity in regards to that served as a necessary bridge of understanding. So my question to you is, what do you feel police are missing when it comes to this disconnect and how they interact with people of color?
What police are failing to understand is that they were hired to do a job and to serve the greater good of the community. When you abuse that authority you violate the trust of the public and you deserve all the condemnation that comes your way. The police need to just basically live up to the trust that’s going to be thrown upon them and just do the honorable thing.
Did you get to meet Spike Lee?
I met Spike Lee a year ago, at the cast read-through. I actually met the cast, told them my story and responded to any questions they might have had. That was the only time I met Spike until this week, and we were in New York for the premiere.
Having seen the film at the premiere, what was the most surreal scene for you to see recreated?
I can’t say any single thing. It was surreal, just watching the whole movie, and recognizing that it’s based on the book that I wrote. That is a very surreal, almost out-of-body experience, and I’m very pleased with the movie that Spike put together.
And I can only imagine also seeing Denzel Washington’s son play you was nice.
Well, Denzel was my first choice to play me but obviously, he’s too old. It was ironic that it came down to John David. He did an excellent job of playing 25-year-old me.
Lastly, when the reports of BlacKkKlansman were coming out, not even the film, but your book, a lot of people were making the connection to Dave Chappelle’s sketch where there’s a blind black man who’s the leader of the KKK group. Have you seen it?
I’ve seen it. It’s a wonderful, funny skit. I mean, it cracks me up whenever I see it, and it was very innovative.