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‘BlacKkKlansman’ Ron Stallworth: ‘I don’t feel like I’m a hero’

It’s fitting that a recent MinnPost interview with Ron Stallworth happened by phone. In 1978, Stallworth was a rookie detective and the only African-American in the Colorado Springs police department when he infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan — by phoning them and Klan poobah David Duke and posing as a white supremacist.

Today, Stallworth’s story is finding a big-screen audience via Spike Lee and Jordan Peele‘s brilliant “BlacKkKlansman,” based on Stallworth’s 2014 memoir of the same name.

MinnPost chatted with Stallworth in advance of his Oct. 25 appearance at Minneapolis’ Beth El Synagogue, where he’ll be part of the synagogue’s “Heroes Among Us: Combating Hate and Bigotry” series.

MinnPost: Given your line of work, it’s perfect to be talking to you over the phone. Is this really Ron Stallworth?

 

Ron Stallworth: Well, of course it is.

MP: In 1979 your boss told you to destroy all evidence of the investigation. Is that why it took until 2014 to have your book published? Tell me about the book and why it took so long to finally write it.

RS: No. In March of 2013 I just started writing, and I wrote for nine months. There was nothing in the interim that prevented me from telling the story. I just didn’t have a junction to do it.

MP: How often did you tell the story over the years?

RS: People I worked with knew about it. It was a conversation piece, showing them my KKK card, laughing about it and “How did that happen?” I’d tell a lot of stories. It was no secret; I just never talked to the press about it and never put it down in writing.

Courtesy of Focus Features
Ron Stallworth's portrait for the Colorado Springs Police Department.
MP: How does it feel these days, to have your story out there, having it been an underground story for so long?

RS: Very surreal. To recognize that I have a book that, a month ago, was number one on the New York Times’ best-seller list and a movie depicting that chapter in my life is getting critical acclaim — very surreal.

MP: What first inspired you to be a cop?

RS: I moved to Colorado in 1972 (from his hometown of El Paso, Texas) to take the test in order to join the police cadet program at the age of 19. I joined the police force with one motivation in mind: to become I high school PE teacher. After a year of working, I realized that a) I was making twice as much money as I would in the teaching profession, and b) I was having too much fun. I stuck it out for 32 years and no regrets.

MP: How much have you kept abreast of what the Klan and other white supremacists groups have been up to since 1978-79?

RS: Oh, I’ve tuned into it. I used to keep abreast of it real good when I was working street gangs in Utah. I also stay read-up on the subject and I’m aware of what’s happening in the country for the most part.

MP: How does your newfound celebrity feel?

RS: This celebrity thing has been interesting. It’s hard to get used to, because I don’t see myself as a celebrity. When people come up to me and ask for my autograph and everything … I find it funny that people want my autograph.

MP: The talk you’re giving in Minneapolis is part of the synagogue’s “Heroes Among Us” series. Do you feel like a hero?

RS: I don’t feel like I’m a hero. I’m just a cop with just another job to do and I did it to the best of my abilities and with the resources I had. I don’t find anything heroic about it. I know other people have said that and I thank them for that, but it’s nothing I attach to myself.

MP: Detectives today are likely faced with some of the same internal cop-shop obstacles you faced when it comes to investigations. What would you say to a young detective right now, who wants to do the job of exposing hate groups, but doesn’t get support from the brass?

RS: Well, I found myself in the same position and I chose to ignore the naysayers who said it couldn’t be done, and that I shouldn’t do it. I put my career in jeopardy by going above the chain of command directly to the chief of police to get his support, which I got. So I would say to them you have a decision to make: How important is it to you to carry out that assignment, and are you willing to accept the consequences of doing so? I was, and any cop today that finds themselves in a similar position would have to come to that decision for themselves.


MP: What inspired you to do it? Was it literally just seeing the phone number for the local chapter of the KKK and dialing it up and following it just due to your professionalism as a detective and your own natural curiosity, or was there something else that happened, either in your life or your police work, that made you want to pursue the Klan?

RS: Nope, it was just another investigation to me. I saw an ad in the newspaper and I followed it as an investigator to its natural conclusion.

MP: The talk here is “Combating Hate and Bigotry.” With the rise of Trump emboldening racists seemingly every day, how in fact can a sane person combat hate and bigotry? With all your experience, what advice can you give people, knowing what you know?

RS: Well right now, the first thing I would advise them is to register to vote and go vote and get the Republicans out of office and then let’s get Trump out of office, because they are fueling a lot of what’s going on in this country in that regard. They’ve given these people a license to come out from the shadows and do and say the things that they are. I put in my book that, in my opinion, the Republican Party is the natural home of white supremacists, because when they run for office or get politically involved, they don’t do so as a Democrat, they do so as a Republican. Because as David Duke said when he changed his affiliation from Democrat to Republican after losing the election — he changed to Republican and won a Louisiana House of Representatives seat — and his reason for changing was because the Republican Party was closer in line to his way of thinking. I believe that we have to vote these people out of office and get some responsible leadership back in play and not be turned into Republicanism.

MP: Do you feel like a political spokesman now, especially as the November elections approach? I know you’ve been supporting Beto O’Rourke’s campaign in Texas.

RS: He has my vote. He has my entire family’s vote. He is what’s needed not only for Texas, but he’s the kind of politician we need for this country. If more of them were more like him, we’d be better off as a nation right now.

Det. Ron Stallworth's Ku Klux Klan card.
Courtesy of Focus Features
Det. Ron Stallworth's Ku Klux Klan card.
MP: It sure seems like Texas is a microcosm of America right now, and he really is a leader that way, trying to bring that state together.

RS: We’re hoping he can break the bar and get [Ted] Cruz out of there and become the first Democrat in 25 years to represent the state. I live in El Paso, Texas, with my wife. We’ve been here a little over a year; it’s where I grew up.

MP: I’m calling from Minneapolis, hometown of Prince, whose version of “Mary Don’t You Weep” concludes “BlacKkKlansman.” Are you a Prince fan?

RS: I am a Prince fan, and I’m honored that my name is now attached to his name in some way, shape, or form with this film. I never saw him in concert or met him, I’ve just been a fan of his music all these years.

MP: Are you having fun doing readings and speaking engagements? Is it a good time for you?

RS: It is a good time for me. I’m busy. I’m in Chicago right now. I’m booked for speaking engagements through February right now. My wife is with me and we’re having fun, but it’s tiring.

MP: After all this, do you have another book in you?

RS: I’m already working on another one. It picks up where “BlacKkKlansman” left off and follows through to the end of my career with further stories about the obstacles, political and racial, that I had to face in order to get things accomplished and overcome barriers.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/03/2018 - 10:18 am.

    Thanks so much for the interview. Mr Stallworth’s story of infiltration of the KKK has been floating out there for years. But not in the mainstream press. I am so appreciative the story is now in the public forefront. I couldn’t agree more with his thinking. The thing is many people have felt that way since the actions of the Freedom Democratic Party and then Wallace’s run for the Presidency. Now I would like to see interviews or questions being asked to current candidates running for office here in our “hate free state” wether they know about the experience, wether they have seen the film , know of the book and what they plan to do about organized hate groups here in MInnesota. These questions need to be particularity addessed to people running for law enforcement and legal offices like AG or County Sheriffs.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/03/2018 - 02:21 pm.

    Good guy, good movie

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