Stallworth infiltrated his local Klan chapter almost by accident. Spotting an ad in the classified section of his local newspaper in Colorado Springs looking for new members, he replied on a whim and was shocked when two weeks later a man called Ken called and asked why he wanted to join. Having given the right answer, he was in.
He saw it as an opportunity to gather information about their plans and identities, but there was one complication – the Klan asked to meet their new recruit, and clearly would not take kindly to a black man within their ranks. A fellow police officer was hastily enlisted to pretend to be Stallworth for the meeting, and a bizarre, almost farcical story began to unfold.
While the stand-in cop (identified only as Chuck and given directions by Stallworth) rose in the ranks of the local chapter, Stallworth found himself in the surreal situation of being on official police protection duty for KKK Grand Wizard David Duke at a Klan rally, while watching his surrogate self participate.
Now retired after 32 years in the force, Stallworth is surprised if unfazed that he has been thrust into the spotlight after keeping details of his undercover investigation secret for decades. Lee’s film won the Grand Prix award at Cannes Film Festival, but it has also been criticised for depicting racist characters, both Klan members and within the police force, as broadly drawn stereotypes.
“I never looked upon them as characters,” Stallworth explains. “I looked upon them as what they were: people who seriously believed they were superior to me because of their white skin, and that I was unworthy of being counted as a human being in their eyes.”
The film also has a Hollywood-esque explosive – but fictional – climax tacked on to conclude events. In real life, the investigation did not lead to any arrests and was shut down after five months, a decision about which Stallworth remains bitter.
“I didn’t agree with that,” he says. “The intelligence investigation was to gather information and hopefully that information would lead to a criminal complaint. But it didn’t turn out that way. It ended because they wanted me to assume the leadership role of the local chapter and my chief said: ‘We’ve gone far enough, let’s stop it.’”
Despite uncovering the fact that high-level personnel at top-secret facility Norad (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) were KKK members and preventing terrorist activity such as the burning of crosses taking place, Stallworth has regrets.
“I wish we’d done it differently. I would have liked to continue the investigation. I felt like we could’ve assumed a leadership role and maintained proper police decorum, followed proper protocol. I would have at least liked to have tried.”
My message is you don’t have to fear them, rather confront them at every opportunity.
Stallworth was ordered to destroy all evidence of his operations, but kept his KKK membership card as a souvenir. It was only after he retired that he started talking about his nixed Klan investigation.
Today the story is more urgent and relevant than ever. Stallworth infiltrated and documented Klan activity; nobody paid attention. Decades later, some of the dreams these Klansmen would’ve had have been realised. Their ideology has been legitimised by a sympathetic occupier in the highest office. How did we get here?
“You just asked a question that 65 million Americans who didn’t vote for Trump are still asking,” Stallworth says. “These values are mixed in with him, promoted by him. We’re living it now on a daily basis with his immigration policies.”
After serving in Colorado, Stallworth moved back to El Paso, on the US-Mexico border, where he grew up. Much of the rhetoric about race, immigration and potential wall building focuses on this location, and Stallworth served out a distinguished career focused on gang and trafficking activity. He has been on the front line of the battle that has come to dominate US politics.
“If you’re familiar with American history, racism and subjugation is the dominant theme and has been for generations,” Stallworth says. “The Klan has always been around. They duck underground at certain periods and at other periods they’re out in public. The internet has helped them to thrive – they have taken advantage of the anonymity it provides, the loose regulations that allow them to speak the venom that they speak. They’re openly expressing themselves – there’s no attempt to hide.”
Forty years after undercover Stallworth used to have long, convivial phone conversations with the KKK’s Grand Wizard, David Duke is a bigger influence on American society than ever before. But he has yet to catch up with Stallworth, and none of the other members of the Klan has acknowledged that they were duped by a black detective.
“I’ve never heard from David Duke other than he recently tweeted that I was a liar, which I found amusing,” Stallworth says. “The only thing I heard was from an FBI agent in Salt Lake City who contacted me to tell me a website was saying I had pulled this stunt, made a fool of David Duke and they wanted all of their followers to know who I was, where I lived and what my phone number was. Then there was about 10 pages of racial venom spewed against me. Which I found hilarious.
Like the film, Stallworth thinks it’s time for society to wake up.
“The Ku Klux Klan, their followers, right-wing supremacist groups – they are real, they exist. You have to meet racism head on. My message is you don’t have to fear them, rather confront them at every opportunity. Meet them head on, stomp them out.”
Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth (Arrow, £7.99) is out now. Read Edward Lawrenson’s review of BlacKkKlansman