Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
Retired police Sgt. Ron Stallworth’s story—about how he, a black undercover Colorado cop, infiltrated one of the nation’s most notorious hate groups in 1978—is one such truth. Stallworth, 61, recently released the book Black Klansman, detailing his amazing story during his early years of service.
“I was sitting in my office reading the newspaper,” Stallworth, who now lives in Utah, told The Root. “I was going through the classified section, and on this particular day there was an ad that said ‘Ku Klux Klan.’ “
It listed a post office box to send inquiries, and so he wrote a letter, identifying himself as a white man and peppering the note with racial slurs. The undercover officer, who was still in his 20s at the time, did make one crucial mistake, however: He signed the letter with his real name. He wasn’t too worried, though, since he figured the whole setup was probably a joke.
It wasn’t until he got a phone call a week later from the local KKK organizer about starting a Colorado Springs chapter that he realized how serious the ad was.
Stallworth told the man that his sister was dating a “n–ger,” and how mad it made him. The organizer liked his story and figured that Stallworth was exactly what the new chapter needed. He asked to meet—which was obviously a problem. But the quick-thinking officer gave a description of one of his close friends, who worked in the narcotics division, and organized a meeting for the following week.
Stallworth’s friend Chuck would play “the white Ron Stallworth.”
“The funny thing is that Chuck’s voice [was] totally distinctive [from] mine,” Stallworth said. He was only questioned about the different voices once—and he successfully blamed the flub on a sinus infection.
There was only one other time when Stallworth’s cover was almost blown: after his supervisor assigned him to be then-Grand Wizard David Duke’s bodyguard.
“[Duke] was planning a publicity blitz in Colorado Springs. He was coming into town to do interviews and try to drum up interest,” Stallworth said. “I got assigned to be his bodyguard because there were death threats against him.”
At the time, Stallworth was having fairly regular phone conversations with at least three Klansmen, including David Duke. “I was apprehensive that they would recognize my voice,” the retired officer said.
Stallworth remembered how seemingly amiable Duke was. He was likable enough and intelligent, a great orator, and never used slurs about black people or wore his robe. The Grand Wizard even shook Stallworth’s hand and thanked him.
“He was changing the face of the whole Ku Klux Klan,” Stallworth said, describing Duke as the type of man a girl would love to take home to her mother.
I was thinking about all our forefathers and foremothers who [were] dealing with racists like this … who were at the mercy of idiots like this and could do nothing to stop it because of the power of the Klan.
One moment between the two almost went south, however, when Stallworth had someone take a photo of him with Duke and the Grand Dragon, even putting his arm around both men. It obviously upset Duke, who tried to snatch the camera. Stallworth and Duke faced off. “If you touch me,” Stallworth said to the Grand Wizard, “I’ll arrest you for assaulting a police officer, and that’s worth five years in prison.”
Stallworth recalled, “I was thinking about all our forefathers and foremothers who [were] dealing with racists like this throughout the generations, who lacked power, who lacked authority, who were at the mercy of idiots like this and could do nothing to stop it because of the power of the Klan,” he said pointedly. “But on this particular occasion, I had the power, I was the authority and the Klan was at my mercy.”
Duke eventually backed down and walked away. As Stallworth put it, he was the supremacist’s greatest fear: “a n–ger with a gun.”